About a Boy
by Nick Hornby
While staying at someone else’s house, I raided their teenage daughter’s bookshelf for something that struck my fancy and came up with Nick Hornby’s About a Boy. Since I was only there for the weekend, and I’m too lazy to track the book down elsewhere, out of necessity, I read this book in a single day. I specify the ‘necessity’ because, while I liked it, it’s not exactly a book I’d describe as ‘a constant page turner.’ I could have put it down, and would have, if it had been in my possession, because the speed at which I read makes me unfit to read 300 page books in a single day, but I wanted to finish it in one go, so I did. The simplicity and flow of Hornby's language thankfully allowed me to do so.
About a Boy is my second outing with Nick Hornby. Earlier this year, the first book on my 2014 roster was his earlier novel, High Fidelity, and you can really see the similarities. One of About a Boy’s two primary protagonists, Will, might as well be the same person as High Fidelity’s Rob (both likely extensions of Hornby himself), and in fact they do exist in the same universe, as Will refers to Rob’s record shop, Championship Vinyl.
Will is a 36-year-old bachelor who is content with his freewheeling, childless, unattached ways, who decides that a great new way to meet women is to target single mothers. He does this by going to single parent groups and posing as a single father, fabricating a child and a life to go with it, in order to get closer to women. It almost works, but backfires when, instead of meeting women, Will finds himself saddled Marcus Brewer, the 12-year-old son of Fiona, a depressed single mother to whom Will is not attracted. Early in the novel, Fiona attempts to kill herself by swallowing a bunch of pills, and Will is present when Marcus stumbles upon the aftermath. While Fiona has her ups and downs, Marcus realizes he has to do a bit of growing up on his own, and sets out to hook Will up with his mother, so that she is not so alone and Marcus has a male figure in his life outside of his estranged father.
Marcus and Will’s friendship develops over much of the book, the point of view alternating between the two. Marcus continues to show up on Will’s doorstep, despite the latter’s reluctance and his mother’s downright rejection of their unusual friendship. A subplot involving Marcus’s infatuation with a teenaged punk, Ellie, who is in love with Nirvana singer, Kurt Cobain, and thinks Marcus is a funny/weird little boy, is the catalyst for the novel’s climax, colliding with Marcus’s dilemma with his mother in ways that are predictable to the reader, but not to the characters, of course.
Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, in a weird way, are an element of this novel that sort of possess it. For the reader, it sets us in a specific timeline, so I can see why references to it are left out of the 2002 movie version and this year’s 2014 TV show. To them, it would seem anachronistic and unfitting for the characters. Unfortunately, the alignment with the novel’s main events sort of guide the characters to realizations about themselves, so it’s a shame that element was lost. I guess that’s what you get when you guide a novel based on pop culture of the time; the TV version will just have to find another way to tell the story. [On an inconsequential side note, I unknowingly read this novel exactly one week before the 20 year anniversary of Cobain’s suicide.]
About a Boy is a title with more than one meaning. It’s supposedly a reference to Nirvana’s song, “About a Girl,” it’s ostensibly about a boy—Marcus—and his coming of age tale, but it’s also about the maturation of a much older ‘boy,’ Will himself, who realizes through the precocious Marcus that he has a lot of growing up to do himself. Young Marcus often seems like the smartest person in the room, as the adults he is surrounded by can’t seem to get it together. It’s a bit of a cliché, but not unwelcome. Adults and their problems must seem really incomprehensible to kids; sometimes a child’s simplicity is all we need to reevaluate our opinions.
Thanks to Marcus, what everyone comes to realize is that life is too complicated to do it alone. As a strange, friendly but bullied boy, Marcus had no choice but to fly solo his first twelve years. Will and Fiona and Ellie and the others do have a choice, but choose to alienate themselves. About a Boy teaches us that all we really need in life is a community, someone to rely on, someone to be there when someone else is not, because life will be hard, no matter how you try to insulate yourself from its troubles, but it’s a hell of a lot easier when someone’s sitting next to you.