Nick Hornby's zippy novels High Fidelity and About a Boy plumbed the depths of humankind's would-be shallows. In each a character clinging absurdly to a sense of his own emotional insignificance is finally moved, despite himself, to embrace life's complex if at times mortifying drama. In his latest Hornby has almost perfectly reversed the formula, and to the extent that he succeeds, he fails. A Long Way Down opens with high drama—literally, as four suicidal strangers chance on one another atop a London tower block from which they mean to throw themselves. The mood broken by the encounter, they agree to a temporary non-suicide pact, strike up a grudging and dysfunctional friendship, and find themselves in a series of misadventures over the course of which they learn to embrace absurd emotional insignificance as an answer to life's mortifying drama.
It's a worthy notion typical of the good-hearted Hornby. Also typical is a thoroughgoing pop-culture sensibility, which gets the better of him this time around. The four lead characters do "meet cute," after a fashion, and are little more than types: there's a cad with a totaled career and a twitching conscience, a middle-aged mom as straight man, a foul-mouthed pixie, and, because this is Hornby, a frustrated musician-cum-pizza delivery guy who's depressed that his life isn't the power ballad he thought it would be. And as they go through their various challenges together, and give their alternating and unreliable accounts of themselves and the events at hand (in direct, often irritating testimonials), the whole thing starts to suggest the work of the reality-TV impresario Mark Burnett—a sort of Survivor: London, in which no one is eliminated. The main problem, however, is more basic than that: as the characters noisily learn to care less, the reader quietly does the same.