“It sounds to me like you’re a little bit lonely,” my therapist observed. Her spot-on diagnosis carried with it an undeniable sting. Ouch. Much of my day-today experience is a very isolated one. I am always alone in my thoughts; and yet again, I’m not. As I type these words, or drive my car, or stroll through the mall, I am constantly kept company by a cacophonic murmur of ideas. Awake or in repose, I am in the midst of never-ending work in progress, picking phrases out of the ether, putting together word puzzles, endeavoring to express my observations on the human condition. Many of my private desires and secret contemplations will never be known by any other person. There’s where much of the loneliness lies. Does that make me unique? Not necessarily. My God-given tool kit, my perspective on life, my innate dreams and desires, and how I answer my inspirations and apply my talents: I think those are the things that set me apart.
And there’s this: I’ve never been an exceptionally good friend. I’m not needy, nor am I attracted to those who tend to be. I’m not high maintenance. I pride myself on being self-sufficient. I’m a man; a man of a certain age. Getting close to somebody new has become daunting, more than a little embarrassing, exhausting, and therefore nearly impossible. My wife and teenaged daughter seem to make new “best friends” every week. It’s tougher for men, especially after the advent of middle age. “Hey, I like you. I’ll give you a call and we’ll get together soon.” A reasonable proposition for the ladies. Beyond awkward for us fellahs. Oh, I have lots of friends, people I love, people whose company I treasure. But, I confess that I don’t have a regular pal with whom I watch games, play tennis, or ride bikes, a “what are ya doin’ tonight?” kinda buddy. Wish I did; but I don’t. I haven’t made the effort to cultivate that kind of male relationship. So, I spend a lot of time trying to divert myself from that loneliness Dr. White detected during my 45-minutes of self-absorbed blathering.
Occasionally, my scattered imaginings will plop my derriere down in a hardwood booth at a cozy, neighborhood pub. Not a tavern, mind you. Second-hand smoke does not foul the air in the ideal hang of my mind’s eye. In fact, all of the patrons in this virtual place possess a full set of un-yellowed teeth and have showered within the previous week. There might even be a comforting fern or two and some chic tract lighting dangling overhead. The restrooms are free from the smell of vomit and never short on toilet paper. There would most certainly be the crisp crack of colliding pool balls and the thoookkk of darts sticking a cork target. After all, even though my semi-regular attendance here serves other, more cerebral purposes, I’m not such a self-important elitist that I would deprive these evening revelers of some healthy, escapist competition. Even a boisterous guffaw now and then and a burst of spontaneous cheer wouldn’t bother me — within reason, of course. However, I’m not condoning gunplay, large wagers, or dangerous dares. The activities in this spot are all in the spirit of friendly fun.
Sitting there in my favorite booth, I’ll be gripping a frosty pint of Harp (or maybe Sierra Nevada). Across the plank table, exchanging a look of wry intelligence, will be a good friend and fellow literary traveler, a man of letters, a wrestler of words. He and I will be chuckling and grinning knowingly. We toast our refreshing libations, take manly swallows, and wipe the foam from our upper lips. This pause in our conversation allows each of us to nibble another deep-fried pickle. We need a few seconds to ponder. One of us — okay, it was Yours Truly; yay! — just made a witty observation about someone in the bar, someone not in the bar, or life in general (or maybe even death for that matter). I’ve won the right to gloat just a little, having cracked up a pal I both admire and respect. It’s reassuring to impress a smart cohort of the masculine persuasion. (How rare it is, I remark to myself, to find true intelligence where two or more lizard-brained human males are gathered together.) Of course, the more my cohort appreciates my snarky comments, the more intelligence he seems to display. Not that I’ve ever doubted my drinking buddy’s intellectual prowess. He is, after all, one of my favorite authors and has, over the years, provided me with tome after tome, hour upon hour of thought-provoking amusement.
Since this is my fantasy confab, I’m free to cast the role of my clever, pint-swilling pal from all of living male-dom. And, since I’ve bated the hook so cleverly, I’ll bet you’re dying to know who precisely is the bookish dude I’ve chosen for these occasional evenings of hops-y repartee. I’ll be getting to that revelation forthwith. But first, I’ll raise the curtain on the runners-up: Christopher Buckley, Tom Perrotta, and John Irving, any of whom would be absolutely welcome as a third or fourth in this exclusive powwow — for the bargain price of a round of drafts. For quirk, Tom Robbins or Jonathon Saffran Foer might possibly spice things up a bit, or on the odd night (nothing personal intended by the word “odd”), maybe Augustin Burroughs or David Sedaris. However, my first choice would definitely be (drum roll, please) novelist Nick Hornby. (Dang, I almost forgot Dave Barry! Drop by anytime, Dave. You are hilarious!) The list of welcome author types could go on and on. But, Hornby remains my mainstay, anchored at the #1 spot. Why? Let’s consider.
I get Hornby. Even though he’s a Brit and uses words like “lift” and “lorrie” and always leaves “the” out of “in the hospital,” his work really connects with me. This guy is one of the most adept first-person writers I’ve ever read, possessing the chops to adopt the vernacular and perspective of his protagonist with what seems to be miraculous ease. His characters admit their human flaws with self-deprecation. They are invariably self-serving and manipulative; and they know it. Hornby frequently makes me laugh out loud. And yet, I’m never laughing at his characters. I’m aching for them, because I empathize so strongly with them.
Hornby doesn’t intimidate me. Although my all-time favorite novelist Pat Conroy and I could chat endlessly about basketball (which I’m pretty sure Hornby would be incapable of, or simply uninterested in – as I would be discussing soccer), I’m afraid Conroy’s literary giantude would render me meek and tongue-tied. (And, being a fellow sufferer of clinical depression, I’d be apprehensive as to which Conroy I might encounter on any given night. A dark patch might drag a light-hearted evening down. And, who fantasizes about a beer-soaked pity party anyway?) Saying that Hornby doesn’t intimidate me is meant with no disrespect. To me, he is like The Kinks were when I first started writing songs. I recognized Ray Davies’s simple, direct brilliance, and thought, “Maybe I can do that, too.” (Meanwhile, Dylan scared the livin’ shit outta me.) So, Hornby is my literary Davies, showing me a target to shoot for, one that I just might hit someday, if I keep the ideas flowing and my fingers typing.
Hornby is also a music guy, an aficionado of the contemporary pop song. With our cultural sports gap, pop music would give us an endless supply of fertile material about which to jaw. Confession: when I impulsively claimed that Hornby doesn’t intimidate me, maybe I fibbed a little. Certainly, High Fidelity didn’t frighten me away from trying my hand at a novel. In fact, that highly enjoyable tome had quite the opposite effect. My favorite (so far) of Hornby’s books, A Long Way Down, however, did impress me as an extremely ambitious achievement, far beyond the present capabilities of this greenhorn novelist. One reviewer called it “a tight rope walk;” a spot-on description, if I’ve ever heard one. To set about narrating the same story from the vantage points of four separate characters is bold enough, in and of itself. That these four voices came from such varied social stratum and disparate generations impressed me no end. But, the most daring challenge of this circus act was that two out of four were female. How a male author dares to speak from a woman’s point of view is beyond me. I won’t even write a song with a strictly female lyric, unless I’m working with a female collaborator. But, Hornby pulled this trick off seamlessly. (And, I will tell him just that, should we ever share those frosty brews in a real bar, ferns or no.)
But alas, Hornby has now leapt into the breach. This master of first-person personal has penned an entire novel inhabiting the voice, the thoughts, the emotions of a woman. I don’t know how many male authors have attempted this insane stunt; but it’s a feat that surely rivals Evil Kneivel leaping the Snake River on a motorcycle. Talk about a long way down! I imagine that How To Be Good was born of some kind of dare. I doubt that it was Hornby’s agent who goaded him into trying this perilous task. Maybe the novelist challenged himself: “Okay, I’ve written from the POV of a pre-pubescent boy, a teenaged boy, and most all of the stages of adulthood. I’ve even spoken on behalf of a rebellious 20-ish punk chick and a frumpy spinster. What’s next? Ah, yes,” he might have pondered out loud, upon a chilly, London morning, eyeing himself in a foggy bathroom mirror, “an upper-middle-class, professional woman. That’s the ticket.”
The ticket to where? What exactly is the upside here? It seems to me to be a guaranteed lose/lose proposition. Fail, and women readers all around the globe will blow raspberries at you. Pull it off, and... well, what are male readers gonna think? Even a guy like myself, who personifies the term metrosexual and nearly always finds machismo the least attractive of all human traits (the exception being when five-foot-nine, 180 lb Courtland Finnegan throws a six-six tight end outweighing him by 100 pounds to the turf — I find animal aggression on behalf of the Tennessee Titans very appealing), anyway, even I would never be tempted to take this plunge. Surely, men of letters have depicted female characters for millennia, put them into all sorts of situations, and dared to guess how they might think, feel, and act. But, to actually narrate an entire story from inside the head of the opposite sex? That is some kinda risky business!
I mentioned this to my wife the other day. She basically said, “So what?” I was incredulous that my smart, funny, literary-savvy better half didn’t see the precariousness in Hornby’s limb walk, nor did she seem to resent it a whit. Being in every way a very modern woman, I assumed she’d at least take a “we’ll-see-about-that” attitude. I had to remind myself that, although Stacey has always been an avid reader, she has never written a novel, and has not-a clue (and, I’m afraid, very little curiosity) as to how we authors go about it. She, in fact, has read a scant few pages from my books (for fear she might discover something about me that she doesn’t like. While her turning a blind eye to my life’s work occasionally hurts my feelings, her “see-no-evil” attitude may also be contributing to the preservation of our 23-year marriage. Sad, yes; but, potentially in the end, a mixed blessing.)
“I would never, ever attempt that,” I equivocated, referring to Hornby writing from a female perspective.
“Why not?” she queried, with uncharacteristic naïveté.
“Because I have a penis,” I reminded her.
“You act girly sometimes,” she dug.
“No mammary glands, no ovaries, no menstrual cycle, no massive hormonal swings,” I recounted. “Being in touch my own feminine side doesn’t qualify me to speak on behalf of a woman.” Stacey harrumphed the discussion closed, as if I was making a Grand Teton (pun intended) out of a chicken pock. What I’d thought would be a hot-button issue worthy of substantial discussion was of little concern to her. Too much Oprah, I pontificated — silently.
Anyway, having read and enjoyed the heck outta the book, I stand in awe of Hornby’s literary cliff dive. How To Be Good is exactly what its jacket advertises: “Hilarious” and “Fearless.” Never having owned a vagina, I have no way of knowing how authentic Dr. Katie Carr’s voice is. However, her ultra-conflicted emotions rang completely true to me. And, as always, Hornby has created a complex human being who unabashedly shares a personal journey through uncharted territory with honesty, frankness, and an inventive sense of humor. Katie’s spontaneous fling that begins the book spins her into questioning her own marriage to David, a cynical, overweight columnist. More than anything, she wishes that David would change. Then, miraculously and unexpectedly, he does; and she dislikes the new guy he’s become even more than the chubby curmudgeon he left behind. In the long run, after a period of ambivalence and surrender, Katie finds solace and respite in books, accepting her lot in life by acknowledging how very hopeless, meaningless, and perfectly beautiful it all is.
We all feel desperate and exhausted at times. Real life ain’t easy. It wears your ass out. But, when has it ever been a piece o’ cake working to support a family, being both parent and role model to one’s children, and a friend/lover/partner to a spouse — especially when they all have ideas of their own. Modernity allows us the time and leisure to examine how futile and fragile life’s brief candle flicker is. In the long run, Katie’s challenge is not much different from mine (or, presumably, yours). Although her circumstances and supporting cast are unique — and somewhat bizarre, I might add, without spoiling anything — her quandary is universal.
So, congratulations to Nick Hornby. I can only imagine how thrilled and honored he’d be to know that he has qualified himself to be Rand Bishop’s imaginary main booth mate. That one of my favorite authors is fool-hearty enough to crawl under the skin of a 40-year-old woman makes him the man for me. And, at the end of the day, that makes me a little less lonely.