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Thursday, May 01, 2008

Slam

Much of Nick Hornby’s previous work has centered on sympathetic and likable male characters who are finally, inevitably forced to do a bit of growing up. It may come a little late for some of Hornby’s guys, but get there they usually do, and in the meantime the books are a fun ride for the rest of us. With Slam, Nick Hornby turns his hand to Young Adult fiction for the first time and introduces his readers to another likable male character, Sam Jones. The difference this time around, however, is that fifteen-year-old Sam manages to do most of his growing up by the time he turns eighteen instead of waiting until he closes in on thirty.

Sam Jones is a fairly typical London teenager, an adequate student who hopes to attend an art school after his basic studies are done and who spends all of his spare time with video games and skating (he assumes everyone understands that he means skateboarding when he calls himself a skater). He absolutely worships the great skater, Tony Hawk, and holds regular, two-sided conversations with the Tony Hawk poster displayed in his bedroom. He likes girls, sure, but has never really had a serious girlfriend and does not seem to be in too big a rush to find one.

Sam lives alone with his mother who is only sixteen years older than him and who, at times, treats him more like a friend than a son. But little could he imagine when he reluctantly agreed to accompany his mother to a party to meet her friend’s teenaged daughter, that his life was about to change forever. As his mother promised, Alicia was indeed a beauty, and best of all she seemed as attracted to Sam as he was to her. That was the good news – and the bad news – because, almost before he knew what happened, Sam’s new girlfriend was pregnant and determined to keep her baby.

That is where the story really begins and, despite its serious subject, Hornby, in the voice of young Sam Jones tells it with the usual combination of humor and insights into human nature that his readers have come to expect from him. Sam’s immediate reaction to run for his life landed him in nearby Hastings where he lasted exactly one night before realizing what a terrible mistake he was making. Returning to London to reluctantly face the fact that he is going to be a sixteen-year old father and that he has turned his mother into a thirty-two-year-old grandmother, Sam hopes to do the right thing by Alicia and their baby.

Novels about teenage pregnancies are not uncommon, of course, but Slam is one of the few such novels that explore the problem almost strictly from the male’s point-of-view. As such, the novel will likely appeal more to young male readers than to young females but Hornby makes his points in a way that should appeal to both sexes.

Early on, for instance, Sam finds it difficult to understand why many young girls find the idea of having a baby of their own so appealing: “There were a couple of young mums at my school, and they acted like a baby was an iPod or a new mobile or something, some kind of gadget that they wanted to show off. There are many differences between a baby and an iPod. And one of the biggest differences is no one’s going to mug you for your baby. You don’t have to keep your baby in your pocket if you’re on the bus late at night. And if you think about it, that must tell you something, because people will mug you for anything worth having…”

And, when his relationship with Alicia was still new and going a whole day without seeing her was akin to “torture” for him, Sam offers his own thoughts on the nature of torture: “…I will never join the army, by the way. I would really, really hate to be tortured. I’m not saying that people who join the army would like to be tortured. But they must have thought about it, right? So they must have decided it wouldn’t be as bad as other things, like being on the dole, or working in an office. For me, working in an office would be better than being tortured. Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t be happy doing a boring job, like photocopying a piece of paper over and over again, every single day, until I died. But on the whole I’d be happier doing that than having cigarettes put out in my eye. (What I’m hoping is those aren’t my choices.)”

This is vintage Nick Hornby disguised as a Young Adult novel. If you are already a fan, don’t be scared away by the YA tag.

Rated at: 3.5

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