A Darker View from Hornby: 'Long Way Down'

Nick Hornby

Nick Hornby's new book features four characters on the verge of suicide who bond after a chance meeting on New Year's Eve. Riverhead Books hide caption

itoggle caption Riverhead Books

British writer Nick Hornby's comic talents have been on display since the novel High Fidelity caught the attention of critics and moviemakers alike.

Now there's A Long Way Down, his latest novel. The story begins on New Year's Eve on the roof of a high-rise building in London, with four strangers each planning to jump. By happenstance they meet and bond with one another in their shared depression.

Hornby tells Liane Hansen about writing for the British and the American ear, and how music plays a role in his creative process.

Read an excerpt from the first section of A Long Way Down, introducing one of the principle characters:

Maureen

On New Year's Eve the nursing home sent their ambulance round for him. You had to pay extra for that, but I didn't mind. How could I? In the end, Matty was going to cost them a lot more than they were costing me. I was only paying for a night, and they were going to pay for the rest of his life.

I thought about hiding some of Matty's stuff, in case they thought it was odd, but no one had to know it was his. I could have had loads of kids, as far as they knew, so I left it in there. They came around six, and these two young fellas wheeled him out. I couldn't cry when he went, because then the young fellas would guess something was wrong; as far as they knew, I was coming to fetch him at eleven the next morning. I just kissed him on top of the head and told him to be good at the home, and I held it all in until I'd seen them leave. Then I wept and wept, for about an hour. He'd ruined my life, but he was still my son, and I was never going to see him again, and I couldn't even say goodbye properly. I watched the television for a while, and I did have one or two glasses of sherry, because I knew it would be cold out.

I waited at the bus stop for ten minutes, but then I decided to walk. Knowing that you want to die makes you less scared. I wouldn't have dreamed of walking all that way late at night, especially when the streets are full of drunks, but what did it matter now? Although then, of course, I found myself worrying about being attacked but not murdered — left for dead without actually dying. Because then I'd be taken to hospital, and they'd find out who I was, and they'd find out about Matty, and all those months of planning would have been a complete waste of time, and I'd come out of the hospital owing the home thousands of pounds, and where was I going to find that? But no one attacked me. A couple of people wished me a happy New Year, but that was about all. There isn't so much to be afraid of, out there. I can remember thinking it was funny to find that out, on the last night of my life; I'd spent the rest of it being afraid of everything.

I'd never been to Toppers' House before. I'd just been past it on the bus once or twice. I didn't even know for sure that you could get onto the roof anymore, but the door was open, and I just walked up the stairs until I couldn't walk any farther. I don't know why it didn't occur to me that you couldn't just jump off whenever you felt like it, but the moment I saw it I realized that they wouldn't let you do that. They'd put this wire up, way up high, and there were curved railings with spikes on the top... Well, that's when I began to panic. I'm not tall, and I'm not very strong, and I'm not as young as I was. I couldn't see how I was going to get over the top of it all, and it had to be that night, because of Matty being in the home and everything. And I started to go through all the other options, but none of them were any good. I didn't want to do it in my own front room, where someone I knew would find me. I wanted to be found by a stranger. And I didn't want to jump in front of a train, because I'd seen a program on the television about the poor drivers and how suicides upset them. And I didn't have a car, so I couldn't drive off to a quiet spot and breathe in the exhaust fumes...

And then I saw Martin, right over on the other side of the roof. I hid in the shadows and watched him. I could see he'd done things properly. He'd brought a little stepladder and some wire cutters, and he'd managed to climb over the top like that. And he was just sitting on the ledge, dangling his feet, looking down, taking nips out of a little hip flask, smoking, and thinking, while I waited. And he smoked and he smoked and I waited and I waited and waited until in the end I couldn't wait anymore. I know it was his stepladder, but I needed it. It wasn't going to be much use to him.

I never tried to push him. I'm not beefy enough to push a grown man off a ledge. And I wouldn't have tried anyway. It wouldn't have been right; it was up to him whether he jumped or not. I just went up to him and put my hand through the wire and tapped him on the shoulder. I only wanted to ask him if he was going to be long.

Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

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A Long Way Down

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