Nick Hornby is one of those authors that one always keeps as a good backup, saving him for a rainy day, though never really thinking about him for all the other sunny, summer months in between. I’ve been aware of Hornby’s work for many years now, probably soon after I watched “High Fidelity” and figured out it was based on a book. And while the movie was good, you just knew right away that the book would be better, based on the sole fact that the insights and perfectly constructed moments of the film would be given more room to work with by the very nature of the written word, as opposed to the rather confined medium of film.

Yet, in my keen search of a more (for lack of a better word) substantial novel, I’ve been passing Hornby up (when I do manage to remember him) for novels with more to say than describing the minutiae of the everyday life of a record store owner.

I so wish I hadn’t.

I stayed up all last night finishing “About a Boy“, another of Hornby’s movie adaptations, and discovered the simple joy of his writing. I picked up the novel at my favourite second-hand  book store, after choosing between this and “How To Be Good” (the only two choices available – the cost of shopping on the cheap I guess).  I was somewhat apprehensive about starting off my Hornby experience with a book whose movie version I had already seen (and absolutely loved), especially since it was far more recent and fresh in my memory than High Fidelity. But the aforementioned promise of hidden depths and insightful jokes within the novel, lost in translation to the format of film, inexorably drew me in.

To begin with, Hornby’s characterizations are spot on. Marcus (the boy) and his constant inner monologue ring true, and his pitch perfect (spoken) tone coupled with the (mental) confusion due to his inability to understand the world outside his head add a charming sense of humor to any scene he is in. Marcus alone is worth reading the book for, and Hornby’s insights channeled through the boy’s voice and thought process suck you right into the novel from the first chapter.

Then there’s Will (the Boy), forever young, self-obsessed, blissfully aware of his life and his place in the world; seemingly everything Marcus is not (and of course, twenty-something years older). His own insights and inner thoughts, though nowhere near the somewhat shocking and stark nature of those of Marcus, add its own charm to the book, and provide an enjoyable counterpoint to Marcus’ responses to the same situation, as we switch from one character’s point-of-view to the other. Will’s own tangential story line of shallow and meaningless attempts to satisfy his every (usually sexual) whim, is quite worthy on its own merits, revealing the mind of the increasingly relevant stereotype, the slacker. It is a testament to Hornby’s skill as a writer that Will’s chapters are not shortchanged in any way, and the usual pitfall that a novel of this structure (constantly switching POV’s every chapter) succumbs to, of the reader getting more attached to one of the narrators and resents the switch in point-of-view, is effortlessly avoided.

The plot itself appears predictable – the redemption of the perpetual slacker/commitment-phobe who finds meaning in love, and the coming-of-age of the awkward social misfit, who overcomes his inability to connect with the world around him. I was reading another novel along with this one, as I am often wont to do, called “Gates of Fire” by Steven Pressfield. It was everything in a novel I was looking for; it helped meet my historical-fiction quota, it dealt with big, impressive themes like death, the meaning of courage, etc etc. and above all was rather well written. I found myself having to constantly justify reading “About a Boy” to myself. I just felt that the story just didn’t have that oomph to it, especially if I was picking it up after a few days of reading about the heroic battles and sacrifices of the ancient Spartans.

But every time I did pick it up, I just got pulled in, the dual narratives stringing me along as I convinced myself that just one more chapter and I would put it down, just after I could se how Marcus responded to the same event I had seen Will react to. Yet I was mystified… sure the narrative was good, but the underlying story just didn’t seem to add up when viewed as a whole. How was Hornby keeping me so hooked?

And then I figured it out. Like the fictional Will Freeman, who charmed his way into women’s beds, Hornby is a real charmer, making the perfect joke at the perfect time, the right smile with just the right amount of twinkle in his eye. The novel just exudes charisma… oodles of it, making the journey enjoyable and unique and ever so beautiful. This is precisely the sort of book that I would usually avoid, where people tend to promote the writing style and the authors intricate observations about life rather than a compelling story, but I must say the ride is eminently worthwhile.

I am now a firm Nick Hornby convert. All that remains is to decide what next to read, “High Fidelity” or “A Long Way Down“.