Enough about suicide already

So I’m in a bit of a funk this morning, which I’ll need to get past in short order as I’m soon headed to Penn State for a night of good old-fashioned state-school drinking. In any case, this morning I read about Mark Madoff, the elder son of disgraced financier (and current prison resident) Bernard Madoff. Mark committed suicide yesterday, undoubtedly due to the number of lawsuits pending against him and the rest of his family, and what I can only imagine have been years of criticisms and death threats against him for his alleged involvement in the Ponzi scheme. Which is particularly sad since it was both Mark and his brother who told authorities about the scheme as soon as they found out, thereby setting the stage for their own father’s 150-year prison sentence.

I guess it was only appropriate that a real-life tragedy would occur on the morning that I finished this week’s read, Nick Hornby’s About a Boy. I know what you’re thinking: If the Hugh Grant movie is any indication, About a Boy isn’t a sad story–it’s about a mildly bizarre 12-year-old who befriends an affable but clueless middle-aged guy who otherwise hates kids and meaningless social interaction (in other words, every Hugh Grant character ever). But if you’ll remember, the catalyst for the development of that relationship is the weird boy’s mother’s attempt to kill herself, which is discovered by Marcus (the boy) and Hugh Grant on their first day together. Indeed, much of About a Boy is really about life, and whether it’s worth living, and if so, why. This isn’t unprecedented territory for Hornby who, despite his reputation for writing generally humorous novels, actually uses a comedic voice to touch on fairly poignant issues: High Fidelity was about lost love; How to Be Good was about failed marriages; Juliet, Naked was about unfulfilled aspirations. And A Long Way Down was, well that one was pretty much entirely about suicide. If I had to hazard a guess, I would say the point of life, or lack thereof, is something Hornby has given a considerable amount of thought.Reading About A Boy–which I’ve owned for so long that the pages were yellowed–years after having seen the movie (which I’ve seen multiple times) was an interesting experience. Certainly I’ve read books that have become movies before, but I generally prefer to do it the other way around, where the book is my first impression of the story and I’m then free to judge the caliber of the cinematic adaptation. It’s more difficult to see the movie first; the sense of discovery that comes with reading is a bit lost, since you already know how everything turns out. Particularly with Nick Hornby, whose novels read so much like movies that much of the dialogue is exactly the same, it felt a little redundant. I will say that the movie version, which Hornby had a hand in, is pretty much perfection. The voices and qualities of the characters are near-identical, and the overall temperament of many of the scenes, which is some odd cross between existential crisis and mundane hilarity, is spot-on. More than once I would read a line in the book and remember fondly its delivery in the film.

So as movie-to-book experiences go, this one wasn’t so bad. The truth is, Hornby is one of the most accessible and enjoyable authors I know; a 300-page novel inevitably feels like a 100-page one, and despite how easy his books are to read, he manages to avoid being cute or trite in his writing. I thoroughly enjoyed About A Boy — which I chose because I didn’t get around to starting this week’s book until Wednesday — and have immediate plans to re-watch the movie.


About A Boy is actually one of Hornby’s earliest novels, from the ’90s, so it’s interesting to read it now after having followed his literary career through his most recent title. Fortunately, Hornby is one author whose voice hasn’t changed much in the last two decades, and I mean that as a compliment. About A Boy is an example
of Hornby’s ability to create believable and engaging characters, even when they’reΒ supposed to be a little quirky, or in this case downright strange. Considering how manyΒ truly strange people there are in the world, I’d say this is an admirable and
necessary author skill.

TITLE: About A Boy
AUTHOR: Nick Hornby
PAGES: 307 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: High Fidelity and Juliet, Naked
SORTA LIKE: All other Nick Hornby books
FIRST LINE: ” ‘So, have you split up now?’ “

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