It’s tough to write about suicide and not glamorize it or, alternately, vehemently condemn it. Most of the time, suicidal characters have Big Trauma in their lives, and so, to some extent, their desire to end their lives is understandable, at least from a literary point of view. Or on the other side of the coin, suicide is used as a tool to show how selfish a character is, to show the destruction left behind, and the character is vilified. But in A Long Way Down, Nick Hornby manages to straddle both sides of the argument, and he does so in a fresh and compelling way.
The story opens on New Year’s Eve, with Maureen, the single mom of a permanently disabled son, on the roof of a building, poised to jump. Maureen has forgotten a ladder, though, and she needs one to get over the barrier to the edge. She spies Martin, who hasn’t forgotten his ladder, and is already over the barrier. Martin is a failed television news personality who got caught schtupping an underaged girl, went to prison, lost his family, and now works for the equivalent of the open access cable channel. Martin offers Maureen both his ladder and a few moments of privacy, but before she can jump, Jess, a young girl whose father happens to be the minister of education, arrives, and while Martin and Maureen are talking her out of jumping just to make a point to her jerk of an ex-boyfriend, another troubled soul, named JJ, shows up. JJ is a failed American musician – he followed his girlfriend over the pond and then she ran off with his bandmate – and was at the building delivering New Year’s Eve pizzas when he decided suicide sounded like a better answer, but since he feels like that excuse is lame, he tells Martin, Maureen, and Jess that he has an incurable disease. After much discussion and hand-wringing, they decide as a group to postpone the suicide and to meet again in 90 days and reevaluate their decisions. After all, they decide, they have nothing to lose by waiting.
Hornby allows all four characters to have their own point of view, and while it can feel a little bit schizophrenic at times, it also adds an interesting dimension to the story that really works well, and this technique does the additional duty of letting the reader know that each of these four narrators is extremely unreliable. Hornby never repeats the scene, but he often stops mid-sentence – mid-word even at times – and picks up about three seconds earlier with another character’s narrative. It’s an unusual style and one that sounds kind of horrible and disjointed, but one that I actually really liked.
One by one, we learn about each character’s backstory. Martin, the television newscaster, is smarmy and oily, but really wants to be a good man and a good father, and yet somehow manages to fail at just about every turn. On the surface, Jess seems like the typical troubled and angry young girl, but as the novel proceeds, the reader learns that she’s also heartbroken over the unsolved disappearance of her sister, and feels unloved and forgotten by her family. JJ is a lost soul – directionless and aimlessly wandering about and going through the same existential crisis that a lot of us dealt with in our mid-twenties. But it was Maureen who tore my heart apart. Maureen is the young single mother of a boy named Matty and her whole life is devoted to Matty’s care. But Matty will never grow up, never communicate, never walk. It’s never really discussed in the book, Matty’s disability, but clearly Maureen wants him to have as normal a life as possible, and yet she knows he, and she, never will. It’s an endless cycle of hope and despair and she’s just so resigned and I felt just awful for her, more so than I have for a character in a very long time. Hornby could have very easily overplayed Maureen and her story, but every note is perfect. All of the characters are, actually – even the supporting characters that float in and out.
The more time I spend away from this book, the more I like it. When I first closed the final page, I was very much neutral about it. I liked it, but I felt like it wasn’t really anything to write home about. Now, though, a month or more has passed (cause I’m an awesomely timely review writer!) and I find myself thinking about a reread, just to catch all the things I missed on the first go round. And maybe to hope that Maureen is less sad this time.
Once you stop pretending that everything’s shitty and you can’t wait to get out of it…then it gets more painful, not less. Telling yourself life is shit is like an anesthetic, and when you stop taking the Advil, then you really can tell how much it hurts, and where, and it’s not like that kind of pain does anyone a whole lot of good.
I had wanted to kill myself, not because I hated living, but because I loved it. And the truth of the matter is, I think that a lot of people who think about killing themselves feel the same way. They love live but it’s all fucked up for them. We were up on that roof because we couldn’t find a way back into life, and being shut out of it like that…It just fucking destroys you, man.
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