Nick Hornby is the sort of author who, in theory, I would love to hate.
Relentlessly populist (not to mention hugely popular), resolutely proletarian and never particularly subtle with his themes, Hornby seems made for me to sneer at.
I was quite impressed with High Fidelity on a first reading, but hardly blown away: it wasn’t until I read A Long Way Down that I fell in love. And Fever Pitch sealed the deal.
Since then, I haven’t been able to walk past one of his books without buying it. I’m saving up About A Boy for a particularly nice and lazy day when I can wolf it down in one go. Preferably while being fed peeled grapes by Elizabeth Hurley, but Liz’s people won’t return my calls.
I was incapable, therefore, of resisting Slam when I chanced upon it last week – although the fact that it was in the sort of bookshop that is desperately trying to flog remaindered stock should have been the first really serious warning that I was in for a stinker.
Slam is a foray into young adult fiction, but it’s clear from the start that Hornby isn’t really cut out for writing about – or for – teenagers.
Let us, sisters and brothers, remind ourselves of the Rowling Decalogue Of Young Adult Fiction Publishing Success:
I Thou shalt not alienate half thy audience by employing a gender-specific narrative voice
II Thou shalt not alienate any part of thy audience by making references to an activity many of them may look on with contempt
III Thou shalt not write about entirely ordinary or typical characters or thy readers will be bored
IV Thou shalt not make use of the flash-forward until such time as thou must create a cheesy but absolutely final ending
V Thou shalt not set thy story in a particular location if that location is not universally recognisable
VI Thou shalt not examine large and weighty themes unless thy characters are loved or lovable, and the themes are not taboo
VII Thou shalt not write didactic fiction, for teenagers have unusually acute ‘I’m being patronised’ detectors
VIII Thou shalt not ever insinuate that adults are generally wiser and kinder than teenagers
IX Thou shalt not omit some struggle between the forces of good and evil
X Thou shalt not provide an ending that is strictly compatible with reality
Hornby breaks all of these, and I think that has a lot to do with this book ending up in a bargain bin in a bargain bookshop.
Sam, the narrator, is male. He’s a skater. He’s an entirely typical underachieving British teen. There are about four very, very dodgy flash-forwards in the book, none of which provide closure. Sam lives in dreary suburban London. Sam gets his girlfriend pregnant when they’re both sixteen, and the issue of abortion is raised. The whole novel is a homily on safe-sex and responsibility. The kids are all morons, and the adults, while not much more intelligent, are certainly wiser. There is no ‘bad guy’, and the ending is entirely, and depressingly realistic.
Writers of young adult fiction can, of course, reach large audiences while taking on truly serious themes: Morris Gleitzman in his time has dealt with homophobia and AIDS (Two Weeks With the Queen) and Australia’s refugee detention policies (Boy Overboard and Girl Underground). But Gleitzman pulls this off by paying attention to rules eight and nine, and having a singular knack for creating lovable narrators.
And I don’t mean to suggest (perish the very thought) that Rowling is worth imitating. But it’s worth noting that she stands as a benchmark for what young people want to read.
What’s really missing from Slam is Hornby’s trademark enthusiasm for something he knows an awful lot about. It seems clear that Hornby doesn’t know particularly much about skating, or care for it. So we’re left with a tale about teen pregnancy and broken homes with a few nods to teen culture.
Not a lot, alas, to get excited about. Hornby’s humour is rather depressingly absent, also. There’s one lovely cantankerous old character who briefly hires Sam as a helper, but after four pages he’s gone, never to return.
Hornby is well worth reading, and well worth listening to also.
But Slam deserves its place in the bargain bins of bargain bookshops.