It's A Guy Thing.
By Zachary Woodruff
About A Boy, by Nick Hornby (Riverhead/Penguin Books). Cloth, $22.95.
THIS WEEK'S WINNER for the most obvious fictional character name goes to Will Freeman, the protagonist of Nick Hornby's About A Boy. A superficial, jobless, early-'30s fellow who lives from half-hour to half-hour with no emotional ties to restrict him, Will values his ability to make decisions based solely on his own immediate impulses. It's Will's will, dammit, and nobody had better tell Freeman he can't be free, man.
Thankfully, the rest of Hornby's book isn't nearly as obnoxiously clever. Oh, it has its moments, like when Will starts attending SPAT groups (that's Single Parents--Alone Together) so he can pick up on single mothers, whom he discovers are even easier to bed and dump than swinging bachelorettes. Or when the son of one of those women catches on to Will's scheme, and uses this knowledge to blackmail Will into becoming his father figure (thus forming the basis for the book's story). But mostly, About A Boy is a pleasant, satisfying read, the kind that touches sentimental nerves even as it struggles to be cool.
Hornby's debut novel, High Fidelity, was a compelling yet somewhat trite look into one man's pathetic state of mind--pretty much a '90s version of Bright Lights, Big City, with ex-girlfriends instead of cocaine. The main character, an underground record-store geek who relates all his emotions to albums by obscure rock bands, feels the need to track down all 10 of his generation-exes before taking the plunge with his current non-X. The book was the epitome of '90s hip, mixing equal parts depression, grunge-era disaffection, and vinyl-fetish nostalgia.
With About A Boy, it's as if Hornby had acquired a girlfriend and some Prozac since his last outing. Hornby's prose is much happier than before (even while it keeps hitting the hip, cynical notes); and the fixation on girlfriends past and present is gone, gone, gone--women play prominent roles in the novel, but aren't a major concern for the main character. Instead, the story centers on the relationship between Will and Marcus, the previously mentioned son of one of the SPAT mothers.
Basically, Marcus adopts Will. Marcus' mother, Fiona, is an uptight hippie vegetarian who won't let Marcus indulge in any of society's frivolities because she believes in total non-conformity. As a result, Marcus is an extremely awkward 12-year-old. He dresses like hell (or as Hornby, a Brit, would say, he wears "really crap" clothes). He doesn't understand sarcasm. And the kids at his new London school harass him on a daily basis. What's worse, Fiona is on the verge of suicide, constantly breaking into bouts of sobbing for no apparent reason. Between school and home, Marcus is miserable.
So even though Will couldn't be farther from an ideal father-figure, Marcus decides to turn him into one. Actually, it's precisely because Will is such a childish man that he's the ideal friend for Marcus, who is growing up too fast and needs to learn how to be a 12-year-old. And Will is the perfect teacher: He shows Marcus how to dress like everybody else, how to let out a sardonic "ha ha" to prime I-couldn't-care-less effect, and even how to listen to Nirvana (a stark contrast from the Joni Mitchell albums Marcus' mother force-feeds him). Here we have another instance of Hornby's cleverness: The title, About A Boy, may actually be about Will the child-man, not Marcus the too-mature kid.
One of the best aspects of About A Boy is its continuous refusal to head off in sappy directions. There are plenty of opportunities for Hornby to hook Will up with Marcus' mother, or to involve Marcus in a teenage romance (with a rebellious, butt-kicking Gothy chick), or kill off characters to get melodramatic. Hornby resists all those temptations, opting for the dry ins-and-outs of day-to-day existence, where things are rarely tied up neatly. He never tries for profound meanings--like Will, he seems embarrassed by the whole enterprise--but he really nails the smaller observations. About A Boy is more self-consciously smart than it is brilliant, but that's all it needs in order to be entertaining and wryly sweet.
Throughout, Hornby communicates via loose, casual prose--the kind that allows him to blame the sloppiest of metaphors on the meandering thought-processes of his protagonist. That Hornby finds such a stable balance between cooler-than-thou disaffection and underlying sentimentalism is both good and bad. It's good because it's such an enjoyable read, but it's bad because the book doesn't leave you with much to remember after you've finished. It's like a surprisingly good TV-movie-of-the-week: It's full of little people and little events, but at least it's well told.
As a novelist, Hornby is already at a difficult crossroads. His career started auspiciously, and he was hailed as some sort of arbiter of '90s pop culture (especially with regard to the wonderful world of vinyl retro). Now that he's attempting less time-flavored storytelling, Hornby risks losing his edge. But fans of High Fidelity shouldn't be too disappointed: The entire climax of About A Boy revolves around a character's reaction to the death of Kurt Cobain. You won't see that on TV.
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