Probably all of us have a fondness for one or another groovy song that, along with several brilliant bits, trails off with a weak finish that leaves us wondering: “Wasn’t there anything better?” As I tried to place Nick Hornby’s latest novel, Slam, among his largely excellent catalogue of modernist fiction, it struck me that Slam fits this strained metaphor: It’s the “nahhh-nah-na-NAH-na-NAH” from Journey’s “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’”; the ill-conceived guitar interlude from the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Other Side”; the “I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier” from the Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done.” In other words, the non-stellar part I could readily skip.
To be fair, Hornby jumps genres here into young adult fiction; a 40-year-old reviewer is not the target audience. Nonetheless, a well-worn cautionary tale jazzed up with a couple of narrative gimmicks does not a great book make. Slam tells the story of a 15-year-old Londoner, Sam, who impregnates his girlfriend Alicia, also 15. A skater kid with a decent heart and a soft head, Sam is even less prepared than the average 15-year-old for such a disastrous event: His blue-collar father generally absents himself from Sam’s life, and Sam’s only “real” friend is the imaginary presence of skateboard god Tony Hawk, who talks to Sam through a poster in Sam’s bedroom. These problems are compounded by the casual snobbery of Alicia’s parents toward Sam and his divorced mother, herself only 32, and by Sam’s callow dreaminess.
To liven up a shopworn premise, Hornby employs a pair of narrative devices that sound interesting until one actually plows into them. As mentioned above, when Sam is in a tough spot, he talks to his Tony Hawk poster, which talks right back. The catch: Hawk speaks only in snippets from his autobiography, which Sam has read several dozen times:
Sam: [returning home after a fight with Alicia] I just have a bit of a cold. So I’ve come home for a few days.
Hawk: [referring to his first wife] I knew that even though I still loved Cindy, we lived in two separate worlds that were not uniting. In September of 1994 we split up.
Hawk’s responses are frequently of no use to Sam, limited as they are by the contents of Hawk’s book. More to the point, however, the device is annoying and its purpose muddled. In conjunction with the sage wisdom of Sam’s sympathetic mum, a worthy theme might have emerged about trust, family, and heroes, but the snippets of Hawk-speak are frequently puzzling and irrelevant. A cynic would observe that a novelist might try to connect with a target audience by shoehorning in a popular figure that doesn’t really belong in the story.
Sam is also occasionally catapulted into the future by Hawk, ending up in situations where he is expected to know a great deal more than he does, having not experienced the intervening time period. In one instance, Sam goes to sleep not yet sure that Alicia is pregnant, only to wake up in her bed, living in her parents’ house after the baby has arrived. Sam must get up to care for it, but he has arrived without the necessary how-to knowledge. (Sam later returns to his “real” time.) Hornby does good work capturing the jarring uncertainty of awakening in drastically-changed circumstances, but the gimmick is irritating in the novel’s structure because the jumps remain essentially unexplained. Again, there is a reasonably intriguing metaphor here about the displaced sense of arriving at a Big Life Moment without a recollection of the linear path preceding it. Hornby doesn’t close the loop, however, which seems a problem in a novel directed at younger readers.
Having said all that, Hornby remains a modern master — even if he’s built a dinghy instead of a yacht, it’s going to be a pretty damn good dinghy. Slam is shot through with poignant and humorous passages that prove Hornby can still summon his powers, such as an exchange near the end of the book when Sam’s largely useless father comes through with a bit of valuable advice. The tense relationship between Alicia’s parents is also affecting, as her mother’s long-simmering marital dissatisfaction boils in the crucible of Alicia’s lost opportunities. And as demonstrated in High Fidelity, no one — but no one — captures the stomach-churning intensity of young love and romantic confusion as well as Hornby.
Still, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Slam is a less-compelling episode in the life of Marcus from About a Boy, three years on from where we left him. (It’s no surprise that Nicholas Hoult, the young actor who played Marcus, was chosen to read the audiobook for Slam.) Writing for teenagers shouldn’t drastically change the nature of quality writing; there’s no reason an intelligent 16-year-old can’t appreciate a book like High Fidelity. Likewise, one expects that Hornby is plenty capable of writing YA fiction that older readers would appreciate as a peer of his prior works. Interspersed among his rich, innovative novels, Hornby has periodically stretched his writing with non-fiction essays and literary analysis, and each of his works has the unmistakable Hornby magic to a greater or lesser extent. Alas, while Slam is an enjoyable read, it definitely falls within the “lesser” category.
Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who would leave his barstool only to stalk Whit Stillman, if anyone could find Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at email@example.com.
Slam by Nick Hornby / Ted Boynton
Books | November 12, 2007 | Comments ()