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About a Boy ()

It's a bit early to say so now, but in a few years we may consider Nick Hornby the rightful heir to folks like Evelyn Waugh and David Lodge, the great English comic novelists who used social satire in the furtherance of serious moral pursuits. In About a Boy he offers a devastating portrait of the selfish, isolated, infantilized modern Man:
How cool was Will Freeman? This cool: he had slept with a woman he didn't know very well in the last three months (five points). He hadn't spent more than three hundred pounds on a jacket (five points). He had spent more than twenty pounds on a haircut (five points) (How was it possible to spend less than twenty pounds on a haircut in 1993?). He owned more than five hip-hop albums (five points). He had taken Ecstasy (five points), but in a club and not merely at home as a sociological exercise (five bonus points). He intended to vote Labour at the next general election (five points). He earned more than forty thousand pounds a year (five points), and he didn't have to work very hard for it (five points, and he awarded himself an extra five points for not having to work at all for it). He had eaten in a restaurant that served polenta and shaved parmesan (five points). He had never used a flavored condom (five points), he had sold his Bruce Springsteen albums (five points), and he had both grown a goatee (five points) and shaved it off again (five points). The bad news was that he hadn't ever had sex with someone whose photo had appeared on the style page of a newspaper or magazine (minus two), and he did still think, if he was honest (and if Will had anything approaching an ethical belief, it was that lying about yourself in questionnaires was utterly wrong), that owning a fast car was likely to impress women. Even so, that gave him...sixty-six! He was, according to the questionnaire, sub-zero! He was dry ice! He was Frosty the Snowman! He would die of hypothermia!

Will didn't know how seriously you were supposed to take these questionnaire things, but he couldn't afford to think about it; being men's-magazine cool was as close as he had ever come to an achievement, and moments like this were to be treasured.
That's pretty pitiful; not only is his life centered around material self-gratification, but the sole measure of his life's achievements is the "pleasure" he's brought himself.

However, when Will stumbles onto a new scam for picking up women, by pretending to be a single father and frequenting a local support group for single parents (SPAT), he ends up getting involved in the life of a terribly awkward young boy, Marcus, a twelve year old with a suicidal mother. Will views Marcus as little more than a prop to abet his bedding of women, but Marcus has other ideas. Marcus desperately wants to save his mother but he recognizes that he's just a naive and very confused kid, so he needs an adult's help. Unfortunately for him, and for Will, the only adult, the only person for that matter, other than his mom to show interest in him is Will. So he begins showing up at Will's apartment every afternoon and, having figured out that Will was faking being a father, has sufficient blackmail material that Will's stuck with him:
When Will had conceived this fantasy and joined SPAT, he had imagined sweet little children, not children who would be able to track him down and come to his house. He had imagined entering their world, but he hadn't foreseen that they might be able to penetrate his. He was one of life's visitors; he didn't want to be visited.
And so, at first, Will tries to disengage himself from his unwelcome visitor, leading to a confrontation with the boy's mother, Fiona:
"[Y]ou're involved now. He keeps coming round to your house. You take him out to buy shoes. He's living this whole life I can't control, which means you have to."

"I'm not going to control anything."

"In which case, it's best that he doesn't see you."

"We've been here before. What do you want me to do if he rings on the bell?"

"Don't let him in."


"I mean, if you're not prepared to think about how to help me, then keep out."


"God, you're a selfish bastard."

"But I'm on my own. There's just me. I'm not putting myself first, because there isn't anybody else."

"Well, he's there too now. You can't just shut life out, you know."

she was wrong, he was almost positive. You could shut life out. If you didn't answer the door to it, how was it going to get in?
But their lives become even more intertwined, first because Marcus never tires of ringing on the bell, and, secondly, because, upon meeting a woman who interests him and who happens to have a son of her own, Will pretends that Marcus is his own son.

At first, his increasing involvement with Marcus isn't too demanding, because the boy--whose hippie mother cuts his hair herself, dresses him in near rags, requires him to eat vegetarian, and has raised him on Joni Mitchell and Roberta Flack (circa "Killing Me Softly")--is being tormented by the other kids at school, and that's something he's actually competent to deal with:
[W]ill saw the kind of help Marcus needed. Fiona had given him the idea that Marcus was after a father figure, someone to guide him gently towards male adulthood, but that wasn't it at all: Marcus needed help to be a kid, not an adult. And, unhappily for Will, that was exactly the kind of assistance he was qualified to provide. He wasn't able to tell Marcus how to grow up, or how to cope with a suicidal mother, or anything like that, but he could certainly tell him that Kurt Cobain didn't play for Manchester United, and for a twelve-year-old boy attending a comprehensive school at the end of 1993, that was maybe the most important information of all.
But, perhaps inevitably, as Will and Marcus begin to bond and as Will's relationship with Rachel, once she gets over his lying about having a son, develops too, it is Will himself who starts to be guided, sometimes not so gently, towards male adulthood. The lives he's gotten himself tangled in turn out to be rather messy--no surprise--but also inescapable:
Life was, after all, like air. Will could have no doubt about that anymore. There seemed to be no way of keeping it out, or at a distance, and all he could do for the moment was live it and breathe it. How people managed to draw it down into their lungs without choking was a mystery to him: it was full of bits. This was air you could almost chew.
and, once he begins breathing, and gets drawn into a run-in Marcus has with the police he discovers something surprising, to him, about himself:
Will couldn't recall ever having been caught up in this sort of messy, sprawling, chaotic web before; it was almost as if he had been given a glimpse of what it was like to be human. It wasn't too bad, really; he wouldn't even mind being human on a full-time basis.
Almost against his own wishes, the boy has grown up.

Mr. Hornby tells all this in a thoroughly engaging and very funny fashion. He manages to be both wise about the problems of modern culture and hip to what's cool. This makes him seem less preachy than he might be otherwise, but, because he's able to differentiate between the two, he's able to show us that to be merely cool is not, in fact, to be fully human and that a society that is so absorbed with coolness is necessarily anti-human.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Nick Hornby (3 books reviewed)
British (Post War)
Nick Hornby Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: (Penguin Books)
    -Nick Hornby (Wikipedia)
    -SUBSTACK: Welcome to A Fan's Notes (NICK HORNBY)
-Nick Hornby (Contemporary Writers, British Arts Council)
    -Nick Hornby (The Guardian)
    -Fever Pitch (Wikipedia)
    -ESSAY: World Cup Soccer: England (Nick Hornby, June 2006, National Geographic)
-ESSAY: Why parents are angry about autism (Nick Hornby, February 10, 2002, The Observer)
    -PROFILE: Nick Hornby on Dave Eggers (Nick Hornby, February 16, 2003, The Observer)
    -INTERVIEW: Nick Hornby meets Tony Adams (Nick Hornby, September 3, 2000, The Observer)
    -NICK HORNBY (1958-) (The Guardian)
    -AUTHOR SITE: Nick Hornby (Penguin Books)
    -BBC - Books - Author Profile for Nick Hornby
    -Nick Hornby Home Page
    EXCERPT: from How to be Good by Nick Hornby
    -REVIEW: of BLOOD SONG A Silent Ballad. By Eric Drooker (Nick Hornby, NY Times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW: Tales of ordinary madness: Nick Hornby's book 'Fever Pitch', the best-selling account of being a depressive-obsessive soccer fan, is now a film. (Helen O'Neill, August 16-17 1997, The Australian Magazine)
    -INTERVIEW: Laughing all the way to the cemetery: Nick Hornby has built a career on depression and the things that help him survive - football, music, books. His new novel tells the stories of four would-be suicides, but it's jauntier than ever. Can he really be so miserable? (Simon Hattenstone, April 23, 2005, The Guardian)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Nick Hornby on His New Novel, 'A Long Way Down' (Fresh Air from WHYY, June 15, 2005)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Novelist Nick Hornby's new book, Songbook, contains a collection of essays about Hornby's favorite pop tunes. It includes a meditation on a reggae version of "Puff the Magic Dragon." (Morning Edition, November 14, 2003)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: with Nick Hornby (Terry Gross, Fresh Air)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Novelist Nick Hornby (Fresh Air from WHYY, July 10, 2001)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Writer Nick Hornby: About a Boy (Fresh Air from WHYY, Sept. 26, 1995)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Nick Hornby's Songbook (Michael Goldfarb, 11/11/2003, The Connection)
    -INTERVIEW: LET'S HEAR IT FOR THE BOY!: About a Boy Author Nick Hornby Talks Music -- Then and Now (Barnes & Noble)
    -INTERVIEW: AN INTERVIEW WITH NICK HORNBY: How to be (a) Good (Novelist) (Sara Martin, May/June 2002, Barcelona Review)
    -INTERVIEW: The human factor: Nick Hornby discusses posterity, comedy, and his keenly awaited, compelling new book, How To Be Good (Robert McCrum, May 27, 2001, The Observer)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: with Nick Hornby (Barbara Lane, 03-22-01)
    -INTERVIEW: About Nick's boy: Until now Nick Hornby has said very little about his autistic son. (Matt Seaton, November 8, 2000, The Guardian)
    -Lit Chat with Nick Hornby (Salon)
    -INTERVIEW: About a writer: Nick Hornby talks about soccer, writing and a highly faithful adaptation of "High Fidelity." (Steffan Chirazi, Salon)
    -INTERVIEW: with Nick Hornby (Book Ends)
    -INTERVIEW: Gender Trouble : Patrick McGuigan talks with Nick Hornby about the changing roles of men and women in his new novel How To Be Good (Spike)
    -INTERVIEW: Nick Hornby (Interviewed by Francis Leach, November 1998, Headspace)
    -INTERVIEW: Nick Hornby's Funny Folk-Pop (Dave Weich,
    -CHAT: with Nick Hornby (Washington Post, July 10, 2001)
    -PROFILE: How to Be Great: His recipe: Write fine, best-selling novels, co-found a school for autistic children, and remind England of what it might be (Zadie Smith, 10/11/04, TIME Europe)
    -PROFILE: 'Good' Words: Nick Hornby examines dilemma of rock critics (Gina Arnold, 09/27/01, MetroActive)
    -PROFILE: of Nick Hornby : The good life (STEPHANIE BUNBURY, 06/02/01, The Age)
    -STUDY GUIDE: to About a Boy (Damaris)
    -STUDY GUIDE: to How to Be Good (Caroline Puntis, Damaris)
    -ESSAY: Fever Pitch (Erin Cunning, 03.07.04, Essay Depot)
    -TEACHING RESOURCES: Fever Pitch - Nick Hornby (BritLit, Using literature in the ELT classroom)
    -ARCHIVES: Nick Hornby (McSweeney's)
    -ESSAY: Football is not football: On the Europeanization of a once-American genre (Simon Kuper, 6 June 2021, The European Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of
-REVIEW: of Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby (CHRISTOPHER CLAREY, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Fever Pitch (Sean Smith,
    -REVIEW: of High Fidelity by Nick Hornby (Suzanne Moore, The Guardian )
    -REVIEW: of High Fidelity (HEATHER MALLICK, Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW: of About a Boy by Nick Hornby (Tobias Hill, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of About a Boy: (Dan DeLuca for The Philadelphia Inquirer)
    -REVIEW: of About a Boy: (Daniel Lyons for Detroit Free-Press)
    -REVIEW: of About a Boy (WALTER KIRN, New York Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of About a Boy (James Sullivan, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of About a Boy (HEATHER MALLICK, Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW: of About a Boy (Nick Pollard, Damaris)
    -REVIEW: of About a Boy (Michelle Goldberg, MetroActive)
    -REVIEW: of How to Be Good by Nick Hornby (Joe Queenan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of How to be Good (John Carey, Sunday Times of London)
    -REVIEW: of How to be Good (Tim Adams, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of How to be Good (Alex Clark, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of How to be Good (Rob Reuteman, Rocky Mountain News)
    -REVIEW: of How to Be Good (Jennifer Howard, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of How to be Good (Vicki Woods, Spectator uk)
    -REVIEW: of How to be Good (Pia Nordlinger, National Review)
    -REVIEW: of How to Be Good (Robert Allen Papinchak, Chicago Tribune)
    -REVIEW: of How to Be Good (Laura Miller, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of How to Be Good (Daniel Mendelsohn, New York)
    -REVIEW: of 'How to Be Good (David Kipen, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of How to Be Good (Douglas Levin, The Oregonian)
    -REVIEW: of How to Be Good (Clea Simon, Boston Phoenix)
    -REVIEW: of How to Be Good (Katie Haegele, Flak)
    -REVIEW: of Songbook by Nick Hornby (Dave Weich,
    -REVIEW: of Songbook (GERALD MARZORATI, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of 31 Songs by Nick Hornby (Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of 31 Songs (John Peel, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby (Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer )
    -REVIEW: of A Long Way Down (Joanna Briscoe, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of A Long Way Down (Stephen Amidon, Times of London)
    -REVIEW: of A Long Way Down (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of A Long Way Down (Chris Heath, NY Times Book Review)

    -FILMOGRAPHY: Nick Hornby (
    -INFO: Fever Pitch (2005) (
    -INFO: About a Boy (
    -INFO: High Fidelity (
    -INFO: Fever Pitch (1997) (
    -Fever Pitch Articles and Information
    -REVIEW: of Fever Pitch (Katrina Onstad, CBC)
    -INTERVIEW: 'Even if it's your baby, you can't protect it': What's it like having your hugely successful books plundered for Hollywood adaptations? (John Millar, April 19, 2002, The Guardian)
    -ARTICLE: Hornby's unfaithful film wins rave review (Fiachra Gibbons, March 24, 2000, The Guardian)
    -OFFICIAL FILM SITE: About a Boy
    -About a Boy: Special Feature (BBCi)
    -REVIEW: of About a Boy (Kenneth Turan, LA Times)
    -REVIEW: of About a Boy (Daniel Eagan , Film Journal)
    -REVIEW: ARCHIVES: reviews of High Fidelity (
    -AUDIO REVIEW: of High Fidelity (Bob Mondello, All Things Considered)

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