This has to be the most light-hearted book about severe bullying, dysfunctional relationships, and suicidal depression I’ve ever read.
You have to hand it to Nick Hornby. About a Boy reads as if he went out into the street in London sometime during 1998 and took a snapshot of the emotional life he found there, and then came back inside and made himself a cup of coffee and wrote as faithful a description of it as he possibly could. At one point, he’s describing a teenage boy’s room:
Ali’s bedroom door was indistinguishable from all the other bedroom doors… once inside, however, there was no question but that the room belonged to a boy stuck between the equally wretched states of childhood and adolescence in early 1994. Everything was there — the Ryan Giggs poster and the Michael Jordan poster and the Pamela Anderson poster and the Super Mario stickers… A social historian of the future would probably be able to date the room to within a twenty-four hour period.
It’s passages like that that make you look suspiciously at Hornby and think, “Is he sending himself up, or me?”
Still, it’s not the crisp detail that makes the book what it is. About a Boy is about the way three people who have no idea how to relate to other people learn to make an odd, impossible, rickety family-type structure, because they must, because love is all that remains. Hornby does this with wit, with humor, and with an oddly distancing effect that makes the real sadness behind the characters easier to bear; only now and then does it surface, and not when you expect it to.
Marcus is twelve, but he might be forty for all he resembles his classmates. He has the wrong hair, the wrong sneakers, the wrong taste in music (Joni Mitchell and Bob Marley, as his mother has taught him), and sometimes he sings out loud without noticing. Predictably, this causes him trouble at school, trouble that is making him increasingly lonely and miserable. Even the worst geeks will no longer be friends with him, for fear he’ll bring them trouble. And his mother, Fiona, is far worse than the bullying: she’s depressed again, crying in long, terrible, unstoppable jags even at breakfast, and Marcus doesn’t know what’s wrong or what to do about it.
Will has reached the age of thirty-six without ever having, or needing, a job. He spends his days pleasantly enough, living off his father’s royalties from a novelty song, shopping, watching television, and going through short-term relationships with women. Longer relationships not only don’t interest him, they panic him, and the bare idea of children sends him running the other direction. He’s not a bad fellow, but he’s not a good fellow, either; a ready liar for convenience’s sake, shallow by choice. His latest lie of convenience, as it happens, is to create an imaginary toddler son so he can cruise single-parent groups for dating prospects — which is how he meets Marcus.
And from there, Hornby spins out the strands of each person’s odd, quirky, individual life: Marcus, who needs to learn to be a kid, and can learn from Will, who has never grown up; Will, who needs to grow up, and can learn vulnerability from Marcus; Fiona, who needs help and support and a way to let go of Marcus. It’s well-written, and, as I said, for a book with such deep and even frightening themes, very light-hearted. Still, I wish I had found it more satisfying. I’m not sure whether it was Hornby’s blokey tone (even about suicide), or his conclusion that kids, in order to grow up, have to lose themselves and assimilate with their peers, or what. I guess since I have remained an unregenerate geek all my life, I found that a bit disappointing. And this may sound odd, but the imaginary toddler was so evocative, I found myself mourning him when he was gone, which was treated entirely as a joke. (Maybe that was just me.) The book was enjoyable, and it made for extremely light reading — I finished it in a matter of a couple of hours — and so I’d recommend it for a quickie. But for a more engaged, deeper dive, I think I’d look elsewhere.