“Will was beginning to come to the conclusion that he was not, as he had always previously thought, a good liar. He was an enthusiastic liar, certainly, but enthusiasm was not the same thing as efficacy, and he was now constantly finding himself in a situation whereby, having lied through his teeth for minutes or days or weeks, he was obliged to articulate the humiliating truth. Good liars would never do that.” – Nick Hornby, About a Boy
I assiduously avoided reading Nick Hornby’s work for some years. So I approached this next book on my 2013 reading list, the above quoted About a Boy, with predictable reluctance.
First, both he and I like to write about rock music (or use rock music as thematic/symbolic material in our work), and I didn’t want to read something of his and discover that he’d beaten me to an insight about The Music© – or, worse yet, that he’d had insights I’d never think of having.
There’s sense in this, trust me. The Rock Era, as I’ve called it before, was, in some ways the incubation period for the Know-It-All Culture© we currently endure daily via social media: during that time everybody you knew became a critic, an expert on the genius/crappiness of The Beatles, R.E.M., Grand Funk Railroad, or (insert band/musician name here). Couldn’t bear to find out that a guy who’s a much more famous writer than I also understood music and its uses better than I.
Second, I’ve seen two of Hornby’s books in “film form.” Both High Fidelity (despite its “Americanization”) and About a Boy (a pretty faithful adaptation I can say now) are films I like a lot and have watched more than once. My own biases being as strong as they are about books and films and the poverty of success the latter medium has had adapting the former, though I wanted to read Hornby I’d already seen Hornby, and I worried that one of the following would be true: a) I’d discover that the film had made a hash of the book; b) I’d discover that the film had achieved things the book didn’t; c) I’d really like both and have to expand my list of “good” film adaptations of books to include another member, thus doubling it in size. (Let me not leave you in suspense – Horton Foote’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is my entire list – til now.)
Third, and I can’t stress this one enough, Nick Hornby is a popular and respected author writing about The Music©, the thing which I love best. His other writing interests – sports, for example – may make other writers jealous, and I’m okay with that. His writing about rock, though – his connections of music to the ways we live our lives – to our lives – pisses me off. I don’t mind so much that he does it; it’s that he does it so well.
All this blather is but prologue. About a Boy is an excellent novel that explores two main themes: growing up (at whatever age it happens) and connecting to others (whether through love, friendship, or some combination of these). The “boys” of the title are 12 and 36, respectively. The older, Will Freeman, is the beneficiary of his father’s one successful song: a holiday tune with the kitschy title “Santa’s Super Sleigh” who drifts through life trying to avoid entanglements while enjoying maximum benefits from his relationships – especially those with women. The younger, known only by his first name, Marcus, lives with his mother, a self-absorbed music therapist with suicidal tendencies, and is trying to navigate the perils of adolescence. Will and Marcus are brought together by chance, by near-tragedy – and by Kurt Cobain. Marcus is a dweeb with nerd tendencies and a sincere desire to have a “real” family and friends – Will is an aging hipster who knows how to have friends but needs to learn what it means to be one – and a guy who, despite his constant protestations to the contrary, wants a family, too.
The relationship between these two – which Hornby orchestrates through the music of Nirvana – and the struggles and perils they both encounter and overcome – which Hornby contrasts to the troubled final months of rock icon Cobain’s life – merge The Music© and life in a completely believable way.
Marcus – and readers – learn the secrets – and significance – of connecting with others, of building support systems, of accepting friends for who they are and knowing how to tell friends from possible romantic interests. Will – and readers – learn that, as Donne reminded us long ago, no one is an island.
About a Boy, the film, is a delight – full of charm, heart, and intelligence. About a Boy, the book, is even more filled with these qualities.
Despite his tramping on my turf, I look forward to reading more Nick Hornby soon.
Oh – all those “copyrighted” terms? I’m counting on those to provide a hedge fund in case Hornby continues to be more famous than I. Now, gotta get them copyrighted….
CROSS POST: Scholars and Rogues