Perkins' Rule of Inverse Editorial Suggestion holds that whenever an editor, or in this case editors, share a thought such as this one:
"Though we don't necessarily want you to ransack your own life for material (at least not to the point of finding ourselves implicated in any legal precedings [sic])"
with a writer they've hired to, say, review Nick Hornby's new novel, "About a Boy," what they want is for that writer to wantonly ransack his own life for material (the more lurid the better), up to and including implicating himself -- and himself only -- in any legal proceedings whatsoever (civil, criminal, domestic or international). Unfortunately, my life has already been so exhaustively ransacked for material there is almost nothing left to reveal -- kind of like those tombs they discover in the Valley of the Kings that were first emptied of their treasure two millennia earlier. So, instead of interjecting scenes from my personal life and romantic misadventures into this review, I freely offer the intimate secrets of an old acquaintance, who, as luck would have it, is a lawyer. But we'll get to him later. First, the book.
Nick Hornby's virtually flawless new novel, "About a Boy," which comes out this month in the U.S. and has been selling in Britain like Ecstasy at a rave, is the story of a ne'er-do-well named Will Freeman, "a childless single man aged thirty-six" who lives on 40,000 pounds a year in royalties from a song his father wrote in 1938 ("Santa's Super Sleigh"), and spends his shiftless days tallying his score on coolness questionnaires:
"... slept with a woman he didn't know very well in the last three months (five points) ... sold his Bruce Springsteen albums (five points) ... never used a flavored condom (five points) ... had both grown a goatee (five points) and shaved it off again (five points),"
and so on for a total of 66 points.
"Sub-zero! He was dry ice! He was Frosty the Snowman! He would die of hypothermia!"
Freeman mistakes lack of heat for possession of cool, but the ice man isn't getting much play at any temperature until Angie, a blue-eyed, blonde single mother with sexy crow's feet, who wouldn't normally pay him the time of day, pays him the time of day. (Coincidentally, Will first spots her at Championship Vinyl, the record shop owned by Rob, the protagonist in Hornby's first novel, "High Fidelity.") Will gets lucky with Angie, which in turn ignites a near-religious revelation:
"When had he ever been with a woman who looked like Julie Christie? People who looked like Julie Christie didn't go out with people like him. They went out with other film stars, or peers of the realm, or Formula One drivers. What was happening here? He decided that children were what was happening here; that children served as a symbolic blemish, like a birthmark or obesity, which gave him a chance where previously there would have been none. Maybe children democratized beautiful single women."
Maybe, or perhaps it's just those wrinkly eyes (Hornby's apparently got it bad for women with "sexy crow's feet." In "High Fidelity," Charlie, the gal who puries Rob's heart, also has Clint Eastwood eyes). In any case, single mothers, Angie explains, usually think men are beasts:
"When you're a single mother, you're far more likely to end up thinking in feminist clichis. You know, all men are bastards, a woman without a man is like a ... a ... something without a something that doesn't have any relation to the first something; all that stuff."
"'I'm sure,' said Will sympathetically. He was getting excited now. If single mothers really thought that all men were bastards, then he could clean up. He could go out with women who looked like Julie Christie forever. He nodded and frowned and pursed his lips while Angie ranted, and while he plotted his new, life-changing strategy."
Once things fizzle with Angie, Will zealously pursues his strategy, repackaging himself as a "serial nice guy" while joining a single parents group, which is composed mostly of women, and posing as the father of an imaginary son, "Ned." When he can't sustain that ruse -- partly because of conscience, partly due to his deception being uncovered -- he forms an alliance with a geeky adolescent named Marcus who becomes his child stand-in. The unspoken bargain is that Freeman will impart coolness to Marcus (who goes around yammering about "Kirt O'Bain" until Will hips him that it's Kurt Cobain) and Marcus will give Will single fatherhood, the key to the hearts (or at least the nether regions) of fetching single mothers, according to Freeman's Theorem. It's a novel idea for a novel and, delicate issues of duplicity notwithstanding, an even more novel idea for reality. Could it work? Oddly enough, an acquaintance of mine, a rounder known as "Gil," did something similar not so long ago.
Goaded unmercifully by the previously mentioned editors to seek out some salacious personal angle, I called Gil to see if he'd talk about it. It took some convincing, but he finally caved -- if I'd promise to do time in jail rather than reveal his identity. "My word is my bond," I whispered into the phone.
Ever since his divorce, Gil has spent most weekends trolling for available womenfolk. He'd more or less depleted all the usual fishing spots -- upscale grocery stores, car washes, malls, bars, free concerts in the park. Then, as he tells it, one day while Rollerblading (he's 39 for God's sake!) he noticed that the local dog park, one of those specially fenced areas devoted to canine play dates, was crawling with attractive females and their pups. However, a dogless guy going into such a place is greeted with no more enthusiasm than a childless man at a playground. Gil's problem was that he didn't have a dog, so he decided to borrow one.
"The best thing to do," he explained to me, "is to show up with the same kind of dog as the woman you want to meet." That can be tough, but Gil is lucky. Kind of. "I'd skated by a couple of times and seen this strawberry blonde with a Rhodesian Ridgeback. They're a little unusual -- Ridgebacks, that is -- but I knew someone who had one. My ex-wife."
"No! Really? You didn't," I said.
"Really," he cackled. "I did." So Gil, who's shameless and likes to live dangerously, borrowed his ex-wife's Rhodesian Ridgeback named Bambi. It must have been an interesting negotiation because from what I've heard, when they lived together, Gil and Bambi didn't hit it off that well. Anyway, he borrowed Bambi not once but several times. The ex-wife either didn't think his new affection for the dog was odd or she didn't care.
"And did you meet the strawberry blonde?" I asked him, at which point Gil's call-waiting buzzed, of course, and he took the other line (for, like, five minutes), which gave me time to think about the differences between the real Gil and the fictional Will.
For one thing, thanks to Hornby's innate warmth and talent for effortlessly rendering characters, Will seems less fictional than Gil (who, in fact, I don't know that well). They're both looking to get laid, but Will, though he doesn't know it right off, is also seeking considerably more, namely the type of rich, messy, authentic emotional entanglement that terrifies men (and women) at the same time that they crave it. And why do they crave it? Because unless you're a bona fide superficial twit, you want a little more in your life than Rollerblading and the bonk-of-the-week can provide. Thus Will pursues his strategy further than he intends even though he believes that the supposed bliss of family life, as smugly promoted by his married friends, is oversold:
"The only reason for having children as far as Will could see, was so they could look after you when you were old and useless and skint -- but he had money, which meant that he could avoid the clutter and the toilet-paper throws and the pathetic need to convince friends that they should be as miserable as you are."
Hornby, to his credit, doesn't turn his story into "The Breeders vs. The Lost Boys." Instead he takes it somewhere more interesting and original than that. Will goes looking for lust and stumbles into the lovely mess of Marcus' life: his earnest, suicidal mother, Fiona, who sings Joni Mitchell songs with her eyes closed, his ditzy pothead dad, and Marcus' attitude-laden girlfriend. It shouldn't be a surprise, I suppose, to discover that at its heart "About a Boy" is about a boy, and Will's paternal affection for him. It's by that roundabout route that Will seems to finally acquire the texture that might attract the sort of woman he's been after all along (though he may be the last to know it). The difference between Will and Gil is that Will's story transforms him. As for Gil, the jury's still out.
Gil came back on the phone. "Sorry," he said. "It was the ex-wife -- wrangling with her about keeping Bambi this weekend while she goes skiing with her boyfriend. Jesus! Where were we?"
"I had just asked if you ever got to meet that strawberry blonde," I reminded him.
"You bet. We were hot and heavy there for a while, but then, you know ... "
"Yeah," I said.
"The good thing that came out of all that was I really got into Rhodesian Ridgebacks. I have two of them now, Caesar and Jimmy. I'm going to breed Caesar with Bambi."
"That's an interesting arrangement," I said. "Sort of coupling by proxy, huh?"
"Ah, there goes the other line again," Gil said, and I haven't talked to him since.
I later heard that he and his ex-wife had another falling-out and that Bambi is not yet with puppies. Will Freeman would sympathize -- not only with Gil and Caesar, but with Bambi and Gil's ex-wife.
"About a Boy" is fine stuff -- vital, true and droll -- while Hornby is clearly a literary performer who understands his own time. One of his gifts is a facility for seeming to be writing about one thing when he's really revealing another. Indeed, while it may appear that in "About a Boy" he's just skating over a slippery surface of pop culture (his prose is riddled with the nomenclature of circa 1993-94 cool, from Nirvana and Snoop Doggy Dogg recordings to Mike Leigh films, Iggy Pop and which sneakers are hippest), that's just a way, a frequently hilarious one, of traversing the dark pool of emotion lurking below the ice. If one dilemma in Hornby's world is men (and women) who are unable to transcend their own lack of imagination, another is that boys (and girls) spend too little time being young -- and try to make up for it later in decidedly awkward fashion.
Finally, it doesn't matter. What we've got to work with is what we've got to work with. If we're lucky, regardless of age or gender, our lives may cross at some sweet, chaotic intersection just as those of Hornby's characters do. If not, we never know what we missed.