Sunday, November 11, 2007

SLAM by Nick Hornby, or Bamboozled!: The Responsibility of the Critic

Page 145 of this 309 page novel confirms the dramatic core of the plot, whether or not the skateboarding protagonist’s girlfriend is pregnant. Too bad I already read the result of the test in the Library of Congress Cataloging in-Publication data on page vi. The promotional copy on the dust jacket doesn’t mention it, so why should the frontmatter?

I once read that a good critic, rather than taking pleasure in easily and totally trashing a work, can make it a challenge and find something in a piece that someone somewhere might like. The recently fired TV critic for the NY Daily News took this to an extreme. When he started writing for the Daily News in the 1990s, his viewpoint was that of a well-rounded individual writing for an equally well-informed audience, of whom TV watching was one of many entertainment choices or intellectual pursuits. If a show stunk, he’d tell us not to bother, to turn off the tube and do something else.

As the TV audience eroded to Internet and video games in the 2000s, I noticed the Daily News critic’s reviews becoming much more positive and less critical, except for the worst shows. He would talk of how a show’s worthiness was great enough for the viewer to devote hours of his or her life to. My first impression was that he assumed people watched TV all night so his job was to get people to watch the least bad shows. Finally I conjectured that he was subversive, knowing that most things on TV are junk, and seeing that if he wrote mostly negative reviews he would erode the audience even further until the position of TV critic would be endangered like radio, book, and buggy whip reviewers, he encouraged people to stick with mediocrity rather than turn off the set.

I found this book to be mediocre. After reading some reviews, I conclude it is overpraised by critics who are rooting for an author who sells a lot of books and keeps publishing afloat.

My only previous direct artistic experience with the author’s work was my viewing of HIGH FIDELITY, a great movie based on Nick Hornby’s first novel. I had no idea SLAM was his first Young Adult (YA) book. The humor escaped me, except for one chuckle where a man pictures himself as a 49-year-old being able to play club soccer with his 16-year-old grandson.

The book will be impossible for Hollywood to translate to an American setting, such as Hornby’s Fever Pitch and High Fidelity, because of the Romeo/Juliet age range of the parents. I’m sure it can be funny but I found it hard to laugh at this version of teen pregnancy. A 15-year-old boy (whose mum was 16 when he was born) getting a 16-year-old girl pregnant can only be the subject of a YA novel if it’s not explicit and this book isn’t. It makes a best case scenario; she has well-educated parents, his mother is young enough to help him, they have a roof over the head for the baby.

There’s even a happy scene at the end where everyone is still young but slightly more grown up, the couple is apart but the baby cared for, and the icing on the cake: she has a new boyfriend and he has a smoking hot girlfriend! By gum, why did I even stay married for all these 22 years? It’s the Gilmore Girls all over again, a world where children don’t need two parents, where they’re better off with just one, there only being half as many adults to screw up their wise-before-their-time teen noggins.

This book offers a lesson in middle-class civility when dealing with misfortune. The girl’s father pulls a little class snobbishness on the teen dad but instantly apologizes for the remark, “Don’t you people ever learn anything?” The book doesn’t get much deeper that this. Is he dreaming about the future or is he time traveling? Is the Tony Hawk poster to which he talks and from Whom he gets advice a metaphor for the Deity? Gimmicky with CGI possibilities, but not well done in the novel.

I found one redeeming feature for you kids out there. Be wise enough to pick good parents who can get you out of life’s biggest jam.

Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in 2007.

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