Always One Foot on the Ground

I like the way Nick Hornby writes. I even read a whole novel of his that was narrated by a teenager who has heart-to-hearts with his Tony Hawke poster. Whether speaking through a character or as an impersonal narrative voice, his tone is vernacular, chatty, most at home in the tone of a rueful smartass. His people tend to be losers, more or less, washed-up rock musicians or aging hipsters who have realized that they are starting to blend in with the backwater town they live in instead of standing out in splendid camp irony, or teens whose self-destructive impulses have succeeded beyond their intentions.

So I was happy to see a new Hornby novel on the BGL, even if it wasn’t really new: High Fidelity dates from the mid-‘90s, and having read it, I think his work has improved substantially in the intervening years, not so much in his command of comedy as in his ability to tell a compelling human story.

Our narrator, Rob, is a popular-music nerd (like his creator) who owns a wee record store in London. In one sense, he is proud enough to look down on all those who own Pink Floyd and Kate Bush records instead of Bruce Springsteen and Solomon Burke (no, it doesn’t make sense to me either); in another, he worries that he hasn’t accomplished anything, and at age 35 isn’t a young hipster any more.

And now Laura has dumped him. So we get a capsule history of Rob’s romantic life, beginning with his first gropings with a fellow 12-year-old, followed by his first dumping:


Where had I gone wrong? First night: park, fag, snog. Second night: ditto. Third night: ditto. Fourth night: chucked.

OK, OK, maybe I should have seen the signs—maybe I was asking for it. Round about that second ditto I should have spotted that we were in a rut…

Just to be clear, they’re cigarettes, not gay people he’s referring to. Anyway, it’s a cute reductio ad absurdum of relationship analysis cliches.


Back in real time, Rob goes to a gig to see an American alt-country songstress:

She’s got a couple of records out on an independent label, and once had one of her songs covered by Nanci Griffith. Dick says Marie lives here now; he read somewhere that she finds England more open to the kind of music she makes. Which means presumably that we’re cheerfully indifferent rather than actively hostile.

There are a lot of single men here. Not single as in unmarried, but single as in no friends.


I enjoy this kind of snark, enlivening what could otherwise be dreary exposition…the musical nerdery here seems spot-on too.

Sadly, pop music and even witty banter only get you so far, and Rob has noticed that there is an unfortunate gulf between life on vinyl and life in this world:

Well, I’d like my life to be like a Bruce Springsteen song, just once. I know I’m not born to run, I know that the Seven Sisters Road is nothing like Thunder Road, but feelings can’t be so different, can they? I’d like to phone all those people up and say good luck and good-bye,, and then they’d feel good and I’d feel good. We’d all feel good. That would be good.


Rueful smartass, yes. Grownup human, not so much. People tell him (more than once) that he is kind, but the evidence is thin on the ground. He can’t accept the loss of Laura and starts calling her all the time and basically stalking her, which is so not cool. Then her father dies, and he she calls, surprisingly, and asks him to come to the funeral. Which he should be chuffed about, but then there’s this death thing:

Everything that’s ever gone wrong for me could have been rescued by the wave of a bank manager’s wand. Or Or by a girlfriend’s sudden change of mind, or or by some quality—determination, self-awareness, resilience—that I might have found within myself if I’d looked hard enough.

I don’t want to have to cope with the sort of unhappiness Laura’s feeling. Not ever. If people have to die, I don’t want them dying near me. My Mum and Dad won’t die near me, I’ve made bloody sure of that; when they go, I’ll hardly feel a thing.


OK, Rob is an unusually self-aware creep, but definitely in creep territory. Having spent so much time with him, we are happy to see that he has at least started to recognize the thingsthat are making his life so unpleasant. But he has a long way to go, and the novel only shows him going about one-tenth of the distance. Still, one-tenth is frequently enough to win the girl, in fiction and, I suspect, in real life.

Rob’s fear of commitment, his desire to keep one foot on the ground, is certainly not an implausible issue for a guy to have, perhaps especially for a guy with his knack for getting attractive women to have sex with him. But it does get a bit tiresome, and his griping about having a girlfriend who makes more money than he does is tiresome right from the start, and rather embarrassing in an urban dude of the ‘90s.

So I enjoyed HF but I’d recommend Juliet, Naked as my favorite, along with a collection of his columns from the Believer called More Baths, Less Talking.



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