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Hornby, Nick

HORNBY, Nick

Nationality: English. Born: c. 1957. Agent: c/o Victor Gollancz Ltd., Villiers House, 41-47 Strand, London WC2N 5JE, England.

Publications

Novels

High Fidelity. New York, Riverhead Books, 1995.

About a Boy. New York, Riverhead Books, 1998.

Other

Contemporary American Fiction (essays). London, Vision Press andNew York, St. Martin's Press, 1992.

Fever Pitch (memoir). London, Gollancz, 1992; New York, PenguinBooks, 1994.

Editor, My Favourite Year: A Collection of New Football Writing.London, Gollancz/Witherby, 1993.

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Film Adaptation:

High Fidelity, 2000.

* * *

With just two novels and one memoir of his life as a soccer fan to his credit, Nick Hornby has become one of the defining voices of the past decade. He is a keenly observant recorder of, and self-deprecating commentator on, the changing nature of masculine identity in the late twentieth century. His menwhether the autobiographical Arsenal fan of Fever Pitch or the fictionalized protagonists of the no less punningly titled novels, High Fidelity and About a Boy would have been minor cads in any earlier period, but in Hornby's narratives of "the way we live now," they strike a surprisingly sympathetic chord. Their plights, however self-created, make them seem strangely poignant and therefore more deserving of the reader's compassion than of his, or her, disdain.

Hornby's phenomenal success (all three books have been bestsellers and High Fidelity turned into a critically acclaimed and commercially successful film) derives in large measure from his being a generational writerspokesman for the thirty-somethings, mainly but not exclusively English (the film version of High Fidelity is set in Chicago) and male (Hornby is suprisingly popular with female readers as well). In his work, the New Laddism so evident in British culture as something of a backlash against women's gains, appears, but in gentler form, at its most benign and self-examining: not the lowlifes of Irvine Welsh's fiction, but the male equivalent of the protagonist of Helen Fielding's similarly successful Bridget Jones' Diary. In seemingly effortless but hardly artless prose, as deliberately scaled back as his anti-heroes' psyches, Hornby examines his male characters' obsessions (soccer, popular musicoften of a slightly dated kindand being cool) as well as the double-bind in which they find themselves: on the one hand, wanting to belong, while on the other, fearing commitment of any kind to anyone. It is a fear that both stems from and contributes to a low-grade awareness of their own inadequacy, one that they further worry will be all too obvious to others, women in particular, and that helps account for lives of quiet desperation marked by stasis and drift. Although English to their nearly hollow core, his young men seem in many ways latter-day versions of those quintessentially American characters, Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield, and Sal Paradise, or a younger, hipper version of J. Alfred Prufrock.

Rob, High Fidelity 's narrator-protagonist, is thirty-six and the owner of Championship Vinyl, a moribund, North London record shop he opened ten years earlier and that he now runs with the help of Dick and Barry, two lesser versions of himself. Rob's twin obsessions are Laura, the lawyer-lover who has recently left him, and the records that not only give voice to his own ideas about love and life but shape those ideas as well. One way Rob tries to shape his life is by making lists of everything from favorite songs to old girlfriends. However, because these lists are little more than a comic reflex, they provide no lasting relief from the constant fear of not being able to measure up, along with the complementary but more insidious fear of losing what little he has. Even as he deliberately cultivates the superficial life and a defensive, self-ironized stance in relation to it ("Is it so wrong to want to be at home with your record collection?"), he is nonetheless made somewhat bitter by feeling out of his depth. When Rob and Laura first meet, she works as a legal aide lawyer, poorly paid and dressed accordingly. By the time they split up, she is working for a City law firm, well paid and dressing the part. (It is a part she did not choose; in what passes for political consciousness in Hornby's novel, Laura is the victim of Tory economics, which cut funding for her earlier position and left her no choice but highly paid City work.) Feeling that he is alternately stuck in a groove and "falling off the edge," Rob fears both stasis and change, which are just what Hornby gives him when the emasculating lawyer is transformed into a sexy fairy godmother. Although Rob fears that he is nothing more than the music he collects, Laura contends he has some vaguely defined "potential" which she will use some of her money to bring out in a happy ending that turns novel into fairy tale. The sentimentality allows Hornby and his admiring readers to evade the serious psychological and political issues raised, however jokingly, in Fever Pitch, where the fan is clearly a case of arrested development and where the nervous humor masks a very real sense of political compromise ("Yes the terrible truth is that I was willing to accept a Conservative government if it guaranteed an Arsenal Cup Final win").

About a Boy plays a variation on the Rob theme. Although similarly unattached, thirty-six, and lacking ambition, Will Freeman is more financially secure and self-confident (or at least self-consciously cool) than Rob. His sole patrimonyroyalties from a popular Christmas song that his father wrote in 1938 and that Will despisesprovides Will with the money and therefore the time to indulge his only real passion: sex. Pretending to be a single father, he finds a ready supply of young as well as vulnerable women at a meeting of SPAT (Single ParentsAlone Together). The existence of Marcus, a needy preteen newly arrived in London with his suicidal mother, complicates Will's life and Hornby's novel, which moves back and forth between the two characters (as centers of consciousness) in alternating chapters. Although even more self-centered than Rob, and more willing to use others (including children, both real or imagined) to serve his purpose (making him more attractive to women), Will has something Marcus needs. Will knows things about popular cultureabout clothes and Kurt Cobain and Manchester Unitedthat can help Marcus as this consummate outsider tries to find his way in the unknown territories of London and early adolescence. Despite his misgivings, Will does help Marcus, offering him the only kind of advice he can: not on how to grow up but on how to be a kid. Marcus too has some advice to give that addresses the somewhat larger social context of Hornby's second novel. Where High Fidelity portrays a representative weak male, About a Boy offers an epidemic of dysfunctional adults. It also offers an ending that, although no less sentimental than Laura's rescuing Rob, seems more convincing: "'those human pyramids,"' as Marcus explains at novel's end, "'that's the sort of model for living I'm looking at now . You're safer as a kid if everyone's just friends. When people pair off it's more insecure."' And insecurity is the name of Hornby's finely tuned, or attuned, writing.

Robert Morace

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