Do you suffer from CCR? Nick Hornby has for years.
Its symptoms include an inability to purge the opening guitar riffs to "Born on the Bayou" and "Fortunate Son" from your head, an irrational fondness for swamp-growled vocals and an involuntary humming of "Bad Moon Rising" with every full moon. Granted, living with CCR—Creedence Clearwater Revival—isn't all that debilitating. Still, when music is as much a part of your life as it is Hornby's, it's best to watch what you listen to, lest more malignant maladies such as Nellymylitis or Coldplay Syndrome get a foothold.
CCR is one of the running jokes in A Long Way Down, Hornby's fourth and most ambitious novel about four very different characters who happen to meet one New Year's Eve up on the roof of Toppers' House, a London apartment building favored for suicides. Standing in line to end it all are Martin, a washed-up morning talk show host whose star plummeted after a fling with an underage girl; Jess, the punk daughter of a government official; Maureen, a single mom chained 24/7 to the care of her severely disabled adult son; and JJ, the CCR-suffering American in London who's lost his band, his girl and his way.
Because each character narrates in turn the odd story of their unlikely friendship, their safe passage through this dark night of the soul and the days that follow is foreseen from the beginning. Along the way, however, we come to know and sympathize with them as they weigh the pros and cons of soldiering on or taking that long last step.
Considering life's biggest questions with great humor is Hornby's A-game. Although dark in subject, A Long Way Down is also downright hilarious and generous of spirit as these troubled souls work their way toward a tenuous truce with their respective demons.
"When I started the book, I could imagine this conversation where they would basically be saying in a rueful way, let's give it another six months," Hornby says by phone from London. "It seemed in lots of ways like a wonderful metaphor for how we all live, without articulating it. We sort of do get by on the basis of, let's give it another six months. There are lots of things that we're presented with that, if we'd known about them in advance, we would have run a mile, but in fact rather remarkably we absorb them into our lives and carry on anyway."
Hornby's own struggles have never been far from the surface of his novels. His 1995 debut, High Fidelity, featured a young man torn between his passions (chiefly rock music and Arsenal soccer) and the tedium of adulthood. His 1998 follow-up, About a Boy, was inspired by the life-altering birth of his first child Danny, who suffers from autism. His third novel, How to Be Good (2002), came out of the breakup of his marriage to Danny's mother. He and his ex still live close to one another in Highbury and trade off nights with Danny, now 12, whose disorder causes frequent sleep interruptions. Hornby donated proceeds from his 2001 literary anthology, Speaking with the Angel, to TreeHouse, a school for autism that Danny attends.
If you sense a certain melancholy undertone in Hornby's otherwise comic novels, it likely stems from his experiences with Danny.
"Yeah, I guess that's probably true," Hornby says. "I think that, as life gets on, it gets more complicated anyway, so I suspect that if it hadn't been Danny, it would have been something else, if you know what I mean, because you start to see that life can be hard for people."
There are pieces of Hornby in each of the four troubled souls who populate A Long Way Down. Through Martin, he explores the hollowness of celebrity; with Jess, he punches holes in the pomposity of the upper crust; in Maureen, he shares the emotional roller coaster of caring for a disabled son. But it's more than rock 'n' roll that ties the New Yorker pop music critic to the American rocker JJ. "With JJ, it's not really the music, it was the fear of never fulfilling my potential, which was with me when I was his age," he says. "I wanted to write about that fear of frustration."
Hornby looks on his present good fortune with humility and gratitude. Had he not broken through to fiction, he "might have remained a journalist on the sidelines or worse, a high school English teacher. I taught for two years in my mid-20s and I think the horror of that experience stays with me every single writing day," he laughs.
Instead, he's a best-selling author, respected music critic and a dad whose demeanor falls somewhere between his two onscreen personas, John Cusack in the film version of High Fidelity and Hugh Grant in About a Boy. "I think my natural personality is to be very gloomy and then make jokes about it," he admits. Though he's pleased with the movie versions of his novels, he has no interest in adapting his own work.
"I've spent three years on a book and then somebody asks you to write it again except leave everything out, it just seems like such an unattractive offer to me," he admits. He's currently at work co-writing an original screenplay with Oscar-winner Emma Thompson (Sense and Sensibility).
Whether his characters are at the end of their adolescence, the end of their marriage or the end of their rope, Hornby treats them all with the one quality he finds essential, in life and in art: mercy.
"I can't do that thing of crushing the reader; I mean, as a reader, I don't want to be crushed. And so many writers seem to think it's their personal duty to strangle all hope and life out of the person who's spending time with them. As I've gotten older, I've more and more come to value art that doesn't do that, whether it's music or cinema or books. I want some mercy."
Jay MacDonald leads a CCR support group in Oxford, Mississippi.