This is Nick Hornby’s best book. His subject (as usual) is love and his mode (as usual) is the tragi-comic. To say ‘love’ is not quite enough. It is, I think, loving kindness – caritas or charity – that Hornby really rates. His warmth as a writer derives from a kindliness that is rare in any kind of writing, let alone comic writing, which depends so often on a merciless eye or ear. I suspect that Hornby is close – or at least thinks he is - to his creation in this book, Tucker Crowe, an ex-singer-songwriter. We are constantly told how frightful Tucker has been to his wives and children and girlfriends, but this has all happened in an alcoholic past. The Tucker the reader sees is a good father and a gentleman who likes reading Dickens, though somewhat idle. He doesn’t much like himself and at the same time has no illusions about the frightfulness of frightful people.
Like most of the men in the book, Tucker is fairly useless (the women earn the money, make the decisions, bring up the children, talk the sense…). He does nothing. The book is a description of the mutual redemption of the two central characters, Tucker Crowe himself, and Annie, a woman locked into a loveless marriage with an obsessive ‘Croweologist’, Duncan. Crowe lives in the United States. Annie and Duncan on the Lincolnshire coast. The plot lies in the way Hornby brings them together.
He must have been delighted when he thought it up. It is another part of Nick Hornby’s attractiveness as a writer that he is so very easy to read, which invariably suggests that whatever one has read must have been very easy to write, which I daresay it wasn’t. He has great fun inventing Crowe, messing about with all sorts of rock and roll archetypes, traits and tropes that will appeal to the pop-culturally-aware readership that laps him up. He has a go, too, at the academic study of that very same pop culture that tends to lend to the trivial all kinds of weight that it should not be asked to bear.
It is a funny book, as well. There is something Kingsley Amis–like in Hornby’s determined eschewing of the high-falutin’. He writes with a delicious clarity. His authorial presence is ghost-like. We hear everything through his characters’ voices, the third person no bar to this. It is a deft trick. At the same time all three of the main characters make use of Hornby’s characteristic extended metaphors – the ones that (purposefully) break down like inexperienced tight-rope walkers desperately trying to keep their balance (there’s one beginning here, do you see?).
A final note: I would probably not have picked this up had I been reading piece-meal, but there are in the text I think at least four references to the verb tenses which are being employed. Has Nick Hornby been reading Michael Dummett?