About a Boy by Nick Hornby.
Riverhead Books (Penguin), 1998(99)
Tradepaper, “movie tie-in” version, 307 pages. own.
Nick Hornby’s second bestselling novel is about sex, manliness and fatherhood. Will is thirty-six, comfortable and child-free. And he’s discovered a brilliant new way of meeting women – through single-parent groups. Marcus is twelve and a little bitnerdish: he’s got the kind of mother who made him listen to Joni Mitchell rather than Nirvana. Perhaps they can help each other out a little bit, and both can start to act their age.” –publisher’s comments
Two books into his corpus (not counting The Polysyllabic Spree and Shakespeare Wrote for Money) and I am noticing how Nick Hornby is not the writer for romantics—okay, you can count the two Believer compilations. I am also noticing that he hardly reaches any definite conclusions to his explorations, except on the subject of loneliness—we do need deep connections with people—the awkwardness, the risks, they’re worth it. About a Boy comes to some conclusions on loneliness, but the ending is hardly tidy. It felt a bit melancholy actually—which I know should appeal to some. Hornby doesn’t let go of some of the conflict even at that bittersweet end. We like Marcus—as alien as he seems—and yet desire change for him so he has an easier go of it; but what does he risk losing? I think the only real “happy ending” is Fiona’s though she doesn’t allow it for herself and it is tenuous at best.
Perhaps the explanation for the absence in tidy endings is that Hornby’s texts do not promote a belief in happily-ever-afters—certainly not when real human beings are involved. His depictions of married people and, even better, people with children, are bound to depress some. I find the perspective refreshing. And funnily enough, not painting rosy pictures, doesn’t mean said relationships cannot hold some appeal. Still, there is a question as to where maturity gets us, to say nothing of conforming to a script or road map. “Fiona had given him the idea that Marcus was after a father figure, someone to guide him gently towards male adulthood, but that wasn’t it at all: Marcus needed help to be a kid, not an adult” (164). About a Boy provides some respite for thinking and acting in ways that seem “appropriate” as its characters deal with defining and/or meeting expectation. A person’s nature meets pop culture, or greater society, or their own little communites/sub-cultures. What happens where these intersections occur? How is one’s happiness affected or lifestyle disrupted? Growing up isn’t all bad, and as to that, what if it were living another day—yes, suicide figures in significantly. And anger. And the beautiful Kurt Cobain.
What I envy and adore of Hornby is his characterization and its consistency throughout. He has a marvelous sense of comedic timing, and his style of storytelling diffuses the painfully awkward run rampant in the book. His narrator (alternating chapters between Marcus (12) and Will (36)) survives the moment and we keep this in mind as they recount it for us. We can only be as embarrassed or exasperated as the story allows, which is great because there is a lot of discomfort to dispense when the worlds Hornby describe collide.
Like High Fidelity, About a Boy will really resonate with the male reader, especially the (past or present) socially awkward and music-scene lover. Girls should apply, though; especially those who are bored or tire of the chick-lit version of contemporary life drama. I think it helps to have been pop culturally aware during the 1990s, but there is a timeless aspect to the angsts in About a Boy. There is a brief mention of High Fidelity, but you needn’t read them in order. It does make for an interesting pairing as those themes of “loneliness, fitting-in, death, and failure” (Spin) are revisited in About a Boy and continue conversations that fascinate the author, and his audience alike—this audience anyway.
yesterday’s review of High Fidelity.