For all of us there are some authors that you read and just think “this guy (or girl) gets me. This person knows what it is like to be me and is not afraid to tell the whole world.” This, of course, is both a frightening and marvelous feeling. Truth be told, for me, Nick Hornby is one of those authors. My initial experience with Hornby, like for many, has been at the movies. His adaptations of About a Boy and High Fidelity to the silver screen are watershed moments for me. Seeing Hugh Grant and John Cusak among others play characters on the screen that felt a rip-off of my existence was both daunting and self-affirming. So a while back when presented with a free copy of About a Boy, I had to wonder, “Why haven’t I read this?”
If picking a book to read could be an act of divine providence; then this was one of those times. I am currently in the midst of a mid-life shuffle and working diligently to understand my past better, integrate that understanding into my present experience of myself, and move into the type of existence I want the future me to have. Richard Rohr calls this the little death which leads to the second stage of human existence. If I needed a mirror to hold up to myself and ask the important questions of the first half of life: who am I, why am I here, what am I to do; then Hornby’s book works just as well (maybe better) than the bathroom mirror.
In his book, Hornby introduces us to a triumvirate of characters: Marcus, his mom Fiona, and Will. Each of these characters is struggling with the identity questions common to Rohr’s first stage of life. Each of these characters knowingly or unknowingly are looking for community. Let’s take them one at a time.
Hornby’s omniscent narrator describes Marcus in this way:
“Marcus knew he was weird, and he knew that part of the reason he was weird was because his mum was weird. She just didn’t get this, any of it. She was always telling him that only shallow people made judgments based on clothes or hair; she didn’t want him watching rubbish television, or listen to rubbish music, or play rubbish computer games (she thought they were all rubbish), which meant that if he wanted to do anything that any of the other kids spent time doing he had to argue with her for hours. He usually lost, and she was so good at arguing that he felt good about losing. She could explain why listening to Joni Mitchell and Bob Marley (who happened to be her two favorite singers) was much better than listening to Snoop Doggy Dogg, and why it was more important to read books than play on the Gameboy his dad had given him. But he couldn’t pass this on to the kids at school. If he tried to tell Lee Hartley- the biggest and loudest and nastiest of the kids he’d met yesterday- that he didn’t approve of Snoop Doggy Dogg because Snoop Doggy Dogg had a bad attitude to women, Lee Hartley would thump him, or call him something that he didn’t want to be called…. It made him different, and because he was different he felt uncomfortable, and because he felt uncomfortable he could feel himself floating away from everyone and everything, kids, teachers, and lessons.” (15-16)
I almost cried with this portrait of Marcus. In many ways Marcus and I had a lot in common. This idea of feeling different and how it impacts one’s day at school was all too familiar. For Marcus it was being raised by a self-aware, hippie mom; and for me it was being raised in a conservative Christian household. Marcus is right; there is no way a 12-year-old can tell the school bully that Snoop is unacceptable because he reveals an unchristian obsession with demeaning sex. At least none that I can think of even now in midlife.
Just as I have introduced Marcus, allow a briefer description of Will:
“How cool was Will Freeman? This cool: he had slept with a woman he didn’t know very well in the last three months (5 points). He had spent more than three hundred pounds on a jacket (5 points). He had spent more than twenty pounds on a haircut (5 points)…/ He owned more than five hip-hop albums (5 points)…. If he was honest (and if Will had anything approaching an ethical belief, it was that lying about yourself in questionnaires was utterly wrong), that owning a fast car was likely to impress women. Even so, that gave him… 66! He was according to the questionnaire, sub-zero! He was dry ice!…. Will didn’t know how seriously you were to take these questionnaire things, but he couldn’t afford to think about it: being men’s magazine cool was as close as he had ever come to achievement…” (6-7).
To some degree if Marcus represents the middle school me; then Will might just represent both who I wanted to be at that time; as well as, many of the unhealthy ways that post-college me tried (sometimes with great ‘success’) to get away from my inner Marcus.
The novel itself, then is about what happens when Will, the cool, unattached bachelor comes into contact with the decidedly uncool and definitely weird Marcus and Fiona. Questions that are addressed revolve around this crucial threesome which is thrown together for reasons none of them can anticipate or understand. In a way each of these without realizing it needs the others in their lives. Marcus needs to learn how to fit himself into the community. Will needs to realize he needs a community. Fiona needs to learn to lighten up and how to allow others to help her raise a child. These three need each other. They just don’t know it. And possibly they don’t care enough to find that out.
The novel then becomes a trip to and through the concept of the Johari Window. Each of them stands there learning new insights, some that they already knew but hadn’t allowed themselves to understand; and some that perhaps they will never quite know on a conscious level. As this journey continues through the dead duck day (Marcus kills a duck on a field trip); Fiona’s suicide attempt; Will’s inability to be real with those around him and the damage that does to Fiona and later Rachel; and the climax of the novel in which Marcus and a new friend get into trouble with the law; we see an unlikely community being formed, one in which each of the characters must buy in, and learn just what it means to truly be in a relationship with the other.
There is also the issue of integration. Each of the characters must integrate their learning, their new understandings, and these new personalities into a coherent new identity. The answer for Marcus is not to become Will. Will can teach Marcus how to talk to others, cana buy him the newest sneakers, and introduce him to some new music; but Marcus must continue to be… Marcus. In this process of integration Marcus will become a different version of himself; perhaps, not better or worse, but changed and perhaps more whole. Will can teach Marcus how to comfortable in revealing who he has been all along both to the bullies at school, and to his mum.
A similar journey is there for Will as well. The answer for Will is not to become Fiona. The answer is for Will to continue to be… Will. Yet to integrate the idea that being men’s magazine cool might be a achievement; but there is more to be had from life. Through the crucible of this relationship Will learns that taking risks can mean getting hurt; but they also can lead to the kind of rewards that are more worthwhile than simply being good at a TV game-show.
And that is perhaps the central lesson of Hornby’s book: the risk and reward of integration with one’s self as well as within a community. To reach out. To connect. To form communities. To step out the door and deal with the bully next door. To realize that you need help and to ask for it. To become ‘good’ at something other than being good. To find meaning in life. Risk is necessary. All of this is risk, and all this means getting hurt. Yet in the end the hurt has meaning that the free-floating Marcus and Will both longed to have (without consciously knowing it). A life lived without meaning, is an empty shell. It’s like the consumer fluff that Will relishes and Marcus longs to have. Yet without identity and meaning, it is all just empty calories burning away to nothing but a flabby heart.
For this author Marcus and Will stand as two parts of who he has been; and the call of this book is to learn the lesson of risk. To not be afraid to do the hard work of integration and connection. It is only when these lessons are learned that movement into Rohr’s second half of life is truly possible.
 See Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. Josey-Bass: San Francisco; 2011, for a greater discussion of this topic.