How cool is 36-year-old Will Lightman? Sub-zero, according to the questionnaire in his favorite men's magazine. Not only does he own more than five hip-hop albums (five points), he's also slept with a woman he didn't know very well within the last three months (another five points). Targeting single mothers, he joins a single parents' group under false pretenses and is soon drawn into the lives of depressed Fiona and her bright 12-year-old son, Marcus. Suddenly, his life is messy and complicated, and he's horrified when he realizes that he's now hanging with the type of people who gather around the piano to sincerely sing songs like "Both Sides Now" with their eyes closed. This is Hornby's second novel (following High Fidelity, 1995), and it's obvious he has an uncanny ability for homing in on wholly contemporary, often serious topics and serving them up in truly hilarious fashion. His skillful analysis of hipster angst has obviously struck a chord -- this novel has been sold to filmmakers for more than $3 million. (Booklist)
Hornby, whose first two books (Fever Pitch and High Fidelity) treated English football fandom and record collecting as springboards for wickedly funny, pitch-perfect insights into the travails of post-adolescent life and romance, has a huge U.K. following and appears poised for a major American breakthrough. But this amiable satire of a 36-year-old under-achiever's unlikely friendship with a maladjusted 12-year-old boy is not apt to vault the writer to new commercial heights. The set-up is ingeniously off-kilter: London bachelor Will Lightman lives on the royalties of an excruciatingly ubiquitous Christmas ditty penned by his father while scrupulously holding real life at a safe, ironic distance. After a brief fling with a mother of two, Will decides that surrogate fathership is the perfect ruse for meeting women and sets out to embark on a career as a "serial nice guy," inventing a two-year-old son named Ned and prospecting for a new girlfriend at the local meeting of SPAT (Single Parents Always Together). Will's plans begin to unravel, however, when he escorts Marcus, a bookish misfit, home from a SPAT picnic, only to find Marcus's mother, Fiona, collapsed from a near-suicidal overdose of pills. Expectations that Will is the answer to Fiona's depression are quickly upended; there's no chemistry between the two. But Marcus soon wheedles his way into Will's daily routine of video games, daytime TV and Nirvana albums. It is here that the story runs out of steam: Hornby's ferocious grasp of the ennui and the cultural flotsam of contemporary life makes him adept at describing characters for whom nothing happens. When Will and Marcus both begin to mature, Hornby stumbles, pegging their story all too predictably, and ingenuously, to the death of Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain and the vertigo of Will's first real love affair. Hornby's bitter-sweet vision of the single life will keep readers warm long after the final episode of Seinfeld, but he doesn't quite transcend the clever, feel-good histrionics of prime-time TV. (Publishers Weekly)
The originality and fun spilling over in Hornby's acclaimed debut, High Fidelity (1995), run deep and strong through this second novel, as a playboy pretends he's a single dad so he can date single moms, but finds his fantasies warped by the real needs of an unusual 12-year-old boy. Set for life in London with royalties from a sappy Christmas song his father wrote, Will Lightman does nothing all day except be cool--something he does extremely well. And he chases women, with intermittent success. When chance throws a beautiful mom his way, he makes the most of the opportunity, even though she dumps him because she thinks he's ready for commitment and she isn't. No matter: He joins a single parents' group, inventing a toddler named Ned, and is well on the way to another conquest when frizzy-haired loner Marcus and his depressive hippie mother Fiona intervene. They all meet on the day Fiona tries to kill herself, and while Will's really just a friendly bystander, Marcus, in desperation, seizes on him as the solution to their problems. He follows Will to see where he lives, and, after quickly seeing through the toddler ruse, takes to barging in on his ``friend'' nearly every day after school. While hardly in agreement with this turn of events, Will is still enough of a boy himself to recognize that the lad needs a hand, and finds himself caring enough to buy Marcus cool sneakers, which are promptly stolen by the gang at school who harass Marcus daily. But Will provides the key that gives Marcus a first girlfriend, and then is repaid in kind when he meets another beautiful mom, falls in love, and persuades Marcus to act as his son to keep her from getting away. Far more than just boys will be boys, this has the right mix of hilarity and irrepressible characters to attract a wide audience: an upbeat, unqualified success. (Kirkus)
Upbeat literary comedy is virtually an oxymoron today; upbeat British literary comedy has been an extinct species pretty much since the pre-World War II era of P. G. Wodehouse. British laughter--Evelyn Waugh's, Alan Ayckbourne's, Kingsley Amis' and that of their successors--wears sharp teeth and a grimace of pain.
Which makes Nick Hornby a rarity and doubly rare because his upbeat is hoisted along fine strands of humor, satire and sentiment. The first avoids the obvious, the second avoids the comfortable and the last keeps its feet almost entirely dry.
About a Boy, more ambitious than Hornby's warmly received High Fidelity and successfully so to my mind, is a pleasurable book. It reads easily. Such ease is generally and understandably taken to imply something of no great complexity or challenge. In fact, Boy [About a Boy] is both subtle and provocative but put together with a skill that makes it seem simpler than it is. It is, in fact, easier to read than either to forget or convey.
One might as well begin with its whiff of Wodehouse. Will, a comfortable London bachelor--he lives off the royalties of "Santa's Super Sleigh," his songwriting father's single "Rudolph"-sized Christmas hit--is smitten by Angie, a lovely blond he spots shopping for a popular children's record. Not long after, he goes up to her at a coffee shop. "I like Pinky and Perky," he announces: an opening which, once she discounts homicidal mania, actually works.
Bertie Wooster could have performed such a blurt, and in one or two respects, Hornby's Will is a contemporary equivalent. He glides along the surfaces of his easy world, not having to work, avoiding permanent attachments, hanging out with undemanding friends, enjoying the passive pleasures of the day: television, pop music, shopping and an occasional recreational drug. Filling out a magazine quiz, he is gratified to see that on a scale of cool he rates arctic.
He also entangles himself in some Wooster-like absurdities. Realizing that his complaisant life fails to attract the spiffiest women, he stumbles across a truth with the spiffy Angie. She is a single mother. And although he detests children, he sees his opening. For a young woman in the dating game, having a child is "a symbolic blemish like a birthmark or obesity."
Moving on Angie, all Will had to do was to be nice to her two children and, above all, be different from her former husband. "He was loved for not being Simon," he reflects, "more than he was ever loved for being himself." When Angie fades, Will joins a single-parents' group, inventing a son of his own and garnering sympathy and dates because his imaginary former wife is too mean to let him bring the child along.
So much for funny, and Boy is inventively funny from start to finish. But it is more than that. Will is a cutup; he is also a sign of the times, a figure of postmodern detachment. He likes uninvolving pop music: grunge, for example, and Snoop Doggy Dog. He is appalled when Fiona, a single mother, sings Joni Mitchell for him.
"He'd been with people who had picked up guitars and sat down at pianos before ... but they had always sent themselves up in some way: they had chosen stupid songs to play, or sung them from a stupid way, or camped them up or done anything to show they didn't mean it. She meant 'Knocking on Heaven's Door,' and then she meant 'Fire and Rain,' and then she meant 'Both Sides Now.' There was nothing between her and the songs: she was inside them. She even closed her eyes when she was singing." Will flees home to put on the Pet Shop Boys.
Satire as well as comedy, then, and again, they recur deftly throughout. But they are only points of departure. Will is a fool and time's fool, besides, but he is someone whose decency and, above all, intelligence simply wait to be aroused. It is Marcus--a nerdy, determined 12-year-old, Fiona's son, victim of her broken marriage and her weepy '70s nostalgia and pathetically unfit for the '90s cool of his schoolmates--who rouses him. Boy is two convergent adventures in learning and change: Will's and Marcus'.
Marcus has to cope with Fiona's depression. He finds her leaving her job afternoons to lie on the floor, covered in her overcoat, watching cartoons. After a picnic with a friend of Fiona's and with Will--the friend is another of his single mothers--the three come home to find Fiona comatose from a suicide attempt. Pumped out, she is confronted by her son. He is only 12, he points out, she must take care of him or find someone who will. Soon Marcus is canvassing to enlarge his family base: two is clearly unsafe. Four would be better; he goes for Will and the imaginary son.
Shrewd and touching, Boy recounts a series of complicated and diverting ventures and misadventures as Marcus pursues Will and Will evades and circles. Marcus, pre-cool, ardent and fearfully aware, is determined to conquer himself a support system; Will finds his noninvolvement philosophy gradually crumbling. The boy imparts some of his neediness and passion; conversely, Will's stock of '90s style hints and street smarts builds up the much-bullied Marcus' self-confidence.
It is a splendid duel and dialogue, with instructive and entertaining side trips. Will falls in love with a feisty woman who will crack whatever cool Marcus has not managed to shatter. Marcus, the nerd, strikes up an improbable alliance with Ellie, the school's punk wild woman. She is passionately devoted to Kurt Cobain, and Marcus, after misunderstanding her hero to be a nonexistent soccer player named Kirk O'Bane, learns to admire him as well, though critically.
Will's and Marcus' vastly divergent--and finally merging--pilgrimages through the folkways and pitfalls of the late '90s are enlivened by their acute and frequently startling observations. Boy is a brainy book, as well as a funny one, but an emotional thread holds it together. The author manages to avoid sentimentality though not always patness. He contrives one or two happy endings too many for the cast of characters assembled around his two heroes.
Essentially, though, the emotion fortifies and lifts the story. Will and Marcus are both extremely nice, and Hornby has managed the difficult task of using their niceness to enhance, not flatten, their picaresque progress.
Source: Eder, Richard. "The Cool World." Los Angeles Times Book Review (24 May 1998). Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 243. Detroit: Gale, 2008. Literature Resource Center. Web. 17 May 2010.