Nick Hornby is a master of ordinary human drama. I’ve been a big fan of his ever since I read About a Boy. His books are easy reads, sometimes deceptively easy, but the characters almost always feel authentic and interesting. His latest, Slam, is sometimes described as Young Adult fiction, but I think fans of his adult fiction wil enjoy this one, too.
Sam, the protagonist of the book, is a fairly typical London 16-year-old. He likes skating (not ice-skating, mind you), he’s doing well enough in school, and he mostly gets along with his mom, especially now that she’s broken up with her rubbish boyfriend. And then he meets Alicia. And everything changes, and then they change some more. Alicia gets pregnant, Sam runs away to Hastings, comes back, becomes a father, and surprises himself with his ability to cope.
Hornby does throw a few twists into the mix. For example, Sam’s hero is skater Tony Hawk; he talks to a poster of Tony when he’s trouble, and Tony “answers” with quotes from his autobiography. Also, Sam has a couple of odd experiences in which he’s “flashed forward” into the future for a day. These experiences aren’t just dreams; if they are, they’re remarkably accurate. And they terrify Sam. When he flashes forward, he can’t even manage to change his son’s nappy; how can he be a proper dad? When the real days finally arrive, he sees that life sometimes teaches you as you go along.
I loved Hornby’s writing style. Sam is not the kind a narrator whom you’d expect to write beautifully, and so Hornby chose to have him “tell” the story instead. He talks directly to the reader, and at times muses on when he ought to share certain information. (Think about John Cusack talking to the camera in the film version of High Fidelity, and you get the idea.) I imagine this would drive some readers crazy, but I found it to be a clever device that made Sam seem all the more real.
I also liked that Hornby doesn’t seem to be pressing an agenda regarding teen pregnancy. Sam is a pretty capable dad, and he finds ways to cope and even be sort of happy. Alicia’s pregnancy wasn’t a total disaster, and Sam and Alicia’s son is not neglected or mistreated. Sam, however, knows that his life is much harder because he’s a teenage father. He even recognizes that he might have to step off the ladder he’s climbing in order to take care of his son. Hornby neither celebrates nor condemns his characters; he’s just telling a story. I respect him for that.