For his latest novel, Nick Hornby has apparently taken his inspiration not from his record collection or his favorite soccer team, but from reality TV. All the tension of A Long Way Down comes from a situation in which four characters of disparate backgrounds and philosophies must learn to cooperate for the common good. There's no audience watching them, and no prize to be won, but the general form brings to mind Survivor or Big Brother, and the alternating confession-booth-style first-person monologues drive the point home.
The four protagonists—Martin, a disgraced morning-TV chat-show host; Jess, an art-school burnout; J.J., a musician getting over the end of both his band and his relationship; and Maureen, the lonely single mother of a brain-dead son—do have one thing in common: As A Long Way Down opens, they've all stolen off to the same London rooftop to commit suicide on Christmas Eve. Separately, they might have gone through with it, but together, they persuade or compel each other to give life another chance, further reckoning that they might as well keep in touch during the process.
Down follows them down from the rooftop and on through the following weeks as they get to know (though not always like) each other. The action is minimal, and the cursory plot reads almost like an afterthought. The group sparks a brief brouhaha in the tabloid press when Jess claims that an angel with Matt Damon's face kept them from jumping. Later, they vacation in the Canary Islands. But mostly, Hornby lets them talk to (and about) one another as they build their lives up from the bottom.
As with reality TV, it's the characters that make the show engaging. And as usual, Hornby has a pretty good handle on how to write the interior monologues of people who spend a lot of time figuring out how their lives work. Martin, for instance, takes the length of the novel to think through the self-involvement that left his marriage in shambles and led to public humiliations and a brief prison stay after an ill-considered one-night-stand with a 15-year-old girl. (The casting director for the inevitable film version would be smart to pursue Bill Nighy.) The others take just as long to start crawling out of their black holes, and the book makes an open question of their ability to stay out of despair. The fact that the protagonists are stuck in place might explain why the book never seems to go anywhere, but Hornby's ability to write rut-dwellers with wit and insight remains intact. Good thing, too, since that talent is about all there is to A Long Way Down. Still, it's enough to make a convincing case both for friendship and for recognizing that there's really only one way to go once you reach bottom.