Monday, November 3, 2008

Nick Hornby's Slam

If you are a fan of Nick Hornby, you’ll enjoy his young adult novel Slam. The same charm and wit that made About a Boy so good from both perspectives is available here, and while this novel isn’t among his best, it is an enjoyable ride.

Fifteen-year-old Sam is Hornby’s narrator, a skater in London who lives with his mom. They aren’t rich, but they are making it. Sam’s mom had him when she was sixteen, so Sam has heard time and again how important it is not to get someone pregnant at a young age. So of course when Sam meets Alicia, they quickly fall in love and she ends up pregnant. Before they find out though, the relationship—as those between teenagers often do—cools when the freshness is gone.

But rather than some typical ‘boy has to grow up and be a man’ narrative, Hornby deals with the stress and fear of telling parents and worrying about the future in a bit of a satirical way. Already some kids at their school have children, the school even has a new program in place to help teenage parents, and so it is somewhat happy to be able to try it out.

Alicia’s parents are college professors, while Sam’s dad is a plumber. I was surprised at how well the class disparity was used; Alicia’s parents don’t understand why ‘you people’ can’t ever control your kids. Hornby doesn’t let this disparity take center stage, but it is an undercurrent demonstrating how the world looks at teenagers from different classes, if not races. It also subtly reflects how so often we never get farther than our parents did, no matter who we are; those with affluence stay there, those who grew up in a trailer park usually stay there too.

Some of the plot devices just don’t work. Sam talks to a poster of Tony Hawk who often responds with quotes from his autobiography. He also whooshes Sam forward twice so he can see his own future. These trips seemed to do little for him or me; sure we get a flash-forward to see what’s going on then, but no one really seems to learn anything. And Hornby ends the novel with a Q&A between Sam and the reader that neatly ties up loose plot ends. That’s a device that almost never works (and it doesn't here).

Yet I found the book oddly moving. Teenage pregnancy is dealt with in a reasonably real way, especially with regards to the relationship between Sam and Alicia. They live together in her parent’s house after the baby is born, but that doesn’t last. Yet they still find a way to be happy, even in a nontraditional sense, something that I wish was more prevalent with the people I grew up with.

For a novel targeted primarily at teens, there is a message underlying everything: be careful, don’t get pregnant. But if you do, neither of your lives will be over, just different. You can still be happy. How much easier would it be on teens in this situation if that were how they really felt their families and friends would receive them?

Changing subjects: those of you who know me are aware of my interest in the design of books, both their out
ward appearance and the interior writing space. The above cover is from the paperback version of the novel that has just been released. I think it works well on a number of levels: the stork kind of depicts the contents, and the design is reminiscent of Hornby’s other novels. It’s simple, it helps orient the reader with a style familiar with a big author like Hornby, and it reflects the narrative.

But the second cover here is from last year’s hardcover. Hornby’s name is prominently displayed, but the style doesn’t remind me of his other works nor does it give any real insight into the book. All I can tell is that a kid likes to jump around. I guess it may reflect the narrative, but it's so vague that no one would have any idea what it was about.

Clearly I have a preference for the paperback, but for more than one reason. I understand that a lot of books are being marketed as young adult fiction because it is more profitable for the publishing company. If you can tie in to even a small percentage of the Harry Potter market, you can build a new story onto your house.

But with a book like this, by a name author who has written a text that is equally accessible to teen and adult audiences, it might be a better option to go with the cover that reflects his adult works. Were I Barnes & Noble, I’d slide a few copies into the adult section and maybe on a table somewhere up front. You can cross-market these novels in an effective way, but not if their covers are telegraphing that ‘young adult’ label.

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