Thursday, June 26, 2008

Nick Hornby, "Slam" - a review

The finest English writer of his generation, Nick Hornby is always a pleasure to read. Too often, his stories are hastily packaged as "typical male", "hilarious" and "funny". Hilarious and funny, they may be - though that leaves out the high concentration of lifelike drama, neuroses, hang-ups and introspection that characterises all of his books - but the "typical male" tag is as lopsided as one of Luca Toni's shots. Simply, wrong.

With his latest novel, Slam, Hornby decides to take on a teenage audience. If you're one of his fans, that may put you off until you actually decide to read the book. You'll barely notice, the only change being that the whole story is from the point of view of 15-year-old Sam. A skate obsessive (the book will teach you that the expression "skateboarding" is considered as uncool as Michael Bolton's hair), Sam is an ordinary teenager, bored, into Playstations and stuff, but fundamentally alright.

Sam lives with his mum, a young lady of only thirty-two, a woman who actually managed as she raised him on her own. But it's all about to turn into a big mess. Sam's life will have to kiss a premature goodbye to a world of posters and skate-related tricks. His first 'proper' girlfriend, 16-year-old Alice, is pregnant and she wants to keep it. Family patterns are about to be repeated.

But before we give away too much, it's worth pointing up that Hornby doesn’t take any moral high ground. He's just an amazing social observer. His is an extremely accurate picture of today's Britain, a country where thousands of young teenagers who fear they may be no good decide that having a baby is the only doable way out of a merciless race for high grades, money and success. And, for better or for worse, that's become absolutely normal. A place where a kid having another kid is now completely devoid of any social stigma, never mind posing a million practical (and many other) problems.

There's Sam's school and their completely useless teenage-pregnancy Support Scheme (a "strategy") based on filling a form that says you're doing OK and then filling another one to say that you're satisfied with the same scheme. There's prejudice, whereby Alice's ultra-liberal academic parents are subconsciously convinced that, even though he's not, Sam is and will always be a "chav" because he comes from a single-mother family.

All of which comes across subtly. It's up to the reader to decipher whether Hornby is pro-choice or anti-choice and to make up their mind about where they stand.

What matters is that Hornby's style as a narrator is as engaging as ever and if you're not particularly busy, you'll devour the book the same way you guzzled A Long Way Down, About A Boy and High Fidelity. His language is absolutely real and accessible, while his psychological vignettes make you wonder if he's got some supernatural power in his interpretation and articulation of how people really feel. In fairness, there is, by Nick Hornby's standards, a minor narrative weakness. Sam's dreamlike trips to the future add little to the narrative and somehow increase the risks of predictability- if anything, they're quite counterproductive. But it's a minor glitch.

Slam isn't Nick Hornby's strongest book, but the truth is, that’s what happens when the standards set by his previous work were at such a high level.

Slam is now available on Penguin Paperback

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