The book gods owed me one. The last two books I’ve read, as I documented here, sucked some pretty serious ass. So, I came to this latest book feeling like I was owed something. It delivered.
I just finished reading A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby and was impressed from start to finish. It’s a lovely story of four people who decide to kill themselves. You probably don’t think that’s a very uplifting idea for a book, but you’d be wrong. In the very capable hands of Nick Hornby, who also wrote the novels for a few movies you might have heard of, About a Boy and High Fidelity, this book is actually, without being trite or saccharine, able to convey a message that is life affirming.
It’s about four people who all have the same idea on New Years Eve, to jump off a building and end it all. They each make their way, from drastically different lives and backgrounds, to Toppers House, a bit of a famous jumping off point for those who want to throw in the towel. They happen upon one and other and what results, is described on the book jacket, and accurately so, as a newer, fresher version of The Breakfast Club.
The book is written in first person from the four different voices of the main characters. Hornby is brilliant in the contrasts he draws between and around them by using their own various points of view. Each character is writing to an audience and if you pay attention, what you’re actually reading is pointed out to you at one point, although the character who tells you pretends to be oblivious.
You wouldn’t think a book about suicide could be humorous and lighthearted, but that’s the catch here. It only pretends to be a book about death. It’s actually a book about life and living and the humorous parts are both poignant and relevant.
In the end, I came away with the feeling that suicide isn’t so much an act of desperation or of giving up as much as it is an exertion of control over one’s life, even if that bit of control has the price tag of life itself. These four people, some of them who seem to have good reasons for not wanting to live, and others who don’t, are all alike in that their lives have gotten away from them and that their perspective is so dour and so skewed, that the only way they believe they can feel like they are in charge is by killing themselves.
I won’t ruin the ending, or tell you if they all wind up living or dying, but I will say that this book’s ending is exactly the one the book deserved. It isn’t about happily ever after as much as it is about the power of perspective and of change. You’ll invariable come away with a notion of what it’s like to want to die, and to want to live. You’ll understand the fine line that can, at times, separate those two opposites and hopefully remind you that people aren’t always who they seem, and sometimes, even when they are, it’s not because they aren’t trying.
I honestly don’t know what made me pick this book up. The title isn’t especially captivating and once read, with the accompanying picture of four feet on a ledge it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what it might be about, but I did pick it up. And I’ll admit, the reference to the Breakfast Club was probably a major reason I actually bought it. As much as I hate the absurdity of marketing one thing by comparing it to another, I suppose no child of the 80’s could resist that one. This is no retread though. The comparison stops with a group of people, coming together from very different backgrounds to help get each other through the trap that is each of their lives.
It’s original and at times funny, heartrending and always profound. The characters are drawn with vividness and their insights into themselves and their companions are brilliant. Sinners and saints, has beens and never weres, they tell a story well worth reading, learning and remembering. When it’s over, Judd Nelson won’t walk off into the sunset pumping his fist, but you just might.