Jane Austen famously wrote that with "Emma," she was trying to create a heroine only she could love. In his latest comic novel, Nick Hornby goes her two better. "A Long Way Down" stars three of the more self-centered characters in recent memory. Then, the British writer of "High Fidelity" and "About a Boy" does something really risky: He makes the fourth character a saint.
Maureen is a devout single mother who has spent 20 years caring for her severely disabled son, Matty. Unable to cope with her isolation any longer, she decides to end it all on New Year's Eve by throwing herself off Toppers' House, a popular spot for suicides.
"Why is it the biggest sin of all?" she asks. "All your life you're told that you'll be going to this marvelous place when you pass on. And the one thing you can do to get you there a bit quicker is something that stops you getting there at all. Oh, I can see that it's a kind of queue-jumping. But if someone jumps the queue at the Post Office, people tut.... They don't say, You will be consumed by hell-fire for all eternity."
But when Maureen gets to the roof, there's plenty of company: Martin, a talk-show host whose life has imploded because of an affair with a teenage girl; Jess, an unstable, foulmouthed teen who's reeling from a break-up and the disappearance of her older sister; and JJ, an American who has just realized that he's never going to be a rock star. (Even he realizes this is kind of pathetic. He pretends he has a fatal illness known as "CCR" - Creedence Clearwater Revival.)
"Why it didn't occur to any of us that a well-known suicide spot would be like Piccadilly Circus on New Year's Eve I have no idea," Martin comments to the reader, "but at that point in the proceedings I had accepted the reality of our situation: We were in the process of turning a solemn and private moment into a farce with a cast of thousands."
Feeling a little sheepish, the four make a pact: They'll agree to live until Valentine's Day.
It would be a misnomer to call "A Long Way Down" a book about suicide; it's really a book about not committing suicide. It disguises its rather warm and cuddly outlook underneath the out-there premise and an awful lot of profanity.
In fact, I found it more hopeful than Hornby's last novel, "How to Be Good," which dissected a marriage after adultery. It is also extremely funny in spots (although a subplot where the four become tabloid fodder stretches on too long).
And Hornby knows how to write dialogue that comments on human experience without drowning in a vat of sap. There are no romantic clichés or neat endings.
"Dream on," says Martin, after pointing out how touching it would be if he fell in love with Maureen. "It isn't that sort of story," Jess explains while informing the reader that her missing sister will not return.
It is in fact the kind of story that explores how little it takes to turn despair into hope, or at least a willingness to live. At one point, JJ asks Maureen what it would take for her not to kill herself. Her answer doesn't require three wishes, a winning lottery ticket, a genie, or divine intervention.
All she wants, she says, is a week's vacation, to play on a quiz-bowl team, and a part-time job in a shop.
• Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.