My first brush with Nick Hornby was a few years back. I was in India then and I saw a movie about a record store owner who's just broken up with his long-time girlfriend and is having a hard time dealing with it. I didn't know it was based on a novel then, but the movie stuck with me. It was rich in irony, dripped in sarcasm and impeccably cast, with John Cusack as the record store owner, Jack Black as one of the two neurotic music-obsessive clerks working at his store, and Tim Robbins as the mysterious hippie his girlfriend defects to.
A few years later I ended up in a bookstore with High Fidelity staring me in the face. What had remained with me about the film included the deep love of music the protagonist has, and how it permeates everything he does. Jack Black and the other clerk in his store are laugh-out loud funny in how they try to out-obscure each other's music tastes. Being a bit of a music obsessive myself (just look at the number of posts I have tagged music), the idea of the book seemed interesting.
I, however, knew how the book ended. So I did the next best thing. I picked up another book by the same author with a more intriguing premise: 4 people end up on a London rooftop deciding to commit suicide on New Year's Eve, 2000 - the beginning of the New Millennium. What happens on the road taken - when they don't actually go through with it? (I have a morbid streak that is probably worthy of psychiatric attention. Death and its effects/after-effects as humor or literature fascinates me.)
A Long Way Down was a home run. I'd had a horrid time at a social do I felt obligated to go to and I came back home feeling miserable because of some of the people I'd had to meet. I polished off the book in that one night - it was probably 4 AM by the time I slept. It wouldn't be the first time I did that with a Nick Hornby book.
Hornby's strength is, as one of the gushing blurbs on the back of High Fidelity says, is "The Male Confessional". Many of his novels are about a young man trying to figure out his way through life, responsibility and the onset of middle age. High Fidelity and About a Boy both follow this pattern and to an extent, one of the story arcs in A Long Way Down and How to be Good follow the same path for a married, middle-aged man.
However, what makes all his books shine is the generosity of spirit he expresses towards his characters. The character may be a complete goofball scared of commitment (like Rob in High Fidelity) or someone shallower than a tea saucer (Will in About a Boy), but Hornby manages to infuse them with warmth and uncharted depths. They aren't the way they are for no reason. Maybe life never really demanded they be responsible until the circumstances unfolding in the book asked more of them.
Then there are the pop-culture references. Hornby himself seems to be a music junkie and the numerous references and use of popular songs (and films, and sports) in his books as plot points play well enough if you are music literate, but can be to devastating effect if you are an obsessive. One such note played to poignant and hilarious effect is the death of Kurt Cobain in About a Boy.
In addition to the references to music and the warmth he displays towards his characters, what is likeable about his books is that all of them have satisfying endings. All his books have fairly dramatic arcs( attempted suicide, break-up, a husband finding religion), but the denouement tends to be not so. The story starts with a bang. Then the protagonists generally go through a lot of soul-searching with lonely drinking sessions and pizza dinners aplenty. It however ends quietly with everyone picking up the pieces and moving forward with cautious hope. Kind of life itself.