When It Comes to Smart, Creative, Difficult Men, He's the Man

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The auditorium of Beverly Hills Library looks like the waiting area for an oversold flight at LAX. Every chair, wall and floor space is holding up the bodies. If you are over age 40, you don't quite fit in. The optimum profile is male, early 30s, with a shaved head.

On stage, Nick Hornby is reading from his new novel "How to Be Good" (Riverhead). His 5-foot-4, or so, inch frame is mostly hidden behind the furniture, but enough of him shows to prove that he is one of the grown-ups. At 44, he looks more like a novelist than the club-hopper his fans might expect. His shaved head is mostly bald. His blazer is not a second skin. He has the bad back of a man who has spent years pounding on a computer keyboard, not slam dancing.

All of this adds to his air of quiet authority. He's been there, done that, and as readers of his earlier novels already know, the journey has gentled him.

His male characters tend to hide behind their cynic's shield, but sometimes they let down their guard and allow readers to see what is hidden behind.

David, the cranky husband in the new novel, is barely speaking to his wife, who is debating whether to walk out for a second time. They come home from an evening together. Katie, the book's narrator, describes what happens.

"David disappears upstairs and comes down with a box full of bits and pieces from our wedding day, a box that I don't think I knew we owned.

"'Where did that come from?'

"'The old suitcase under our bed.'

"'Did my mother give it to us?'

"'No.'

"He starts to rummage through the box.

"'Who did, then?'

"'Nobody.'

"I still cannot think of it, so I make a frustrated, impatient, growling noise ...

"'It's mine,' he says quietly. '... I bought the box. I got the stuff together. That's how it came into the house."'

Reviewers, who have been cool to the new book, describe Hornby as the king of the male confessional, but that title needs work. He writes about relationships and about the smart, creative, difficult men who commit to one even though it is not perfect.

"There is no one who would not benefit from being in a relationship," he says. "Questions like 'why, how and what chance have they got' are the reason I write about them. I'm not sure I know much about relationships now. But I know about the relationships of the people in my books."

And he makes his characters three-dimensional. Part of what keeps Hornby's stories engaging are the sudden turns from sensitive scenes to those that bring out the tougher, more cynical side of his men, the side that's likely to trash whatever they find fake.

At the Beverly Hills Library reading, he opens to a page of classic Hornby, in which his characters run down an ever-lengthening list of those "hitherto regarded as talentless, overrated or simply wankers"--from John Lennon to Tony Blair--and concur on the four people in world history they both like: "Bob Dylan (although not recently), Graham Greene, Quentin Tarantino and [the late British comedian] Tony Hancock."

Hornby's audience has been giggling, guffawing and at times nearly roaring. A woman stands up to tell him what she thinks.

"I really appreciate your humanity," she says. "My question is, how do you keep it?" Everyone laughs, again. There is a lot of laughter in this room. Hornby turns out to be quite an entertainer in public, though offstage he is so unassuming that it would be easy to walk past him without noticing.

He can't answer the woman's question, so he makes a joke. "You're right," he blushes. "I'm just great. I was born like this."

Novels Have Had

Commercial Success

In his comparatively short life, Hornby has not only tasted but inhaled success. His first book, "Fever Pitch," a memoir about his passion for soccer, set him on the way to stardom nine years ago. It was followed by two novels, "High Fidelity" and "About a Boy." All of them made best-seller lists and were sold as movies. Film rights for "About a Boy" went for close to $3 million.

For the past year, he has been the pop music critic for the New Yorker, writing about everyone from Nick Cave to Los Lobos.

"I read your review of Radiohead's new album," someone comments from the library audience. Hornby turns unexpectedly defensive. "If you're a Radiohead fan here to give me a hard time, I'm sorry. I didn't like the album, you did. I hear from them all the time, telling me I'm going to die and go to hell." The sensitive type; we have to allow him his thin skin.

"It is where I feel comfortable," he says of pop culture. "Everything I love and value has emerged since World War II. Movies, music, the books I like." He gives Anne Tyler credit for teaching him how to reveal the drama of ordinary lives. Her "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant" showed him what kind of writer he wanted to be.

His characters are forged, not molded, by the emotional toll that divorce takes on a child or misguided youth takes on an adult trying to get his life together. In the new novel, he looks into a marriage that has shut down but not ended. All of his books are based on his own life, at least in part.

His parents divorced when he was 11. He graduated from Cambridge University but spent most of his 20s flitting from job to job as a schoolteacher, a language instructor and a columnist for the Independent in London. His beat was pop culture.

"Everybody's writing is autobiographic in one sense," Hornby says. He is in a downtown cafeteria the afternoon of his reading at the library. He pours himself a tall Coke and settles into a deep booth.

"Mine is generic, not personal biography," he says. "I write about things a lot of people in their 20s and 30s go through. I want to show people having a hard time in ways that let readers recognize themselves. That kind of story helps us understand the world."

Blurring Fiction

and Real Life

Maybe because "Fever Pitch" was an autobiography, readers still assume the leading men in his novels are Hornby, thinly disguised.

In "High Fidelity," Rob works in a music shop and knows all there is to know about rock bands. He doesn't like Bono, the leader of U2, so people guess Hornby doesn't like him, either. "You get no credit for creating a character," he squeals. He does squeal, but only when he is irritated.

In "How to Be Good," David--a columnist with a bad back--goes to a faith healer who cures him and takes away his grouchy moods. David, transformed, decides to cure society's ills. Give the spare bedroom in your house to a street person, he advises the neighbors.

Katie is a doctor who doesn't believe in faith healers and thinks that whoever pays the mortgage on the house should get the spare room. She starts asking for a divorce in the first scene of the novel, but David's personality change and her practical streak draw her back home.

"After every book I write, someone tells me it's their story," Hornby says. This time it was a radio talk show interviewer. Before they went on the air she introduced herself this way: "I'm married to a guy named David who's been through a religious conversion."

Hornby thinks more like Katie than David when it comes to conversions. "There is such a thing as redemption," he says. "People can be reborn, in a way. But it isn't any good looking to one individual for guidance. All we can do is think about things and ask ourselves how much we owe people. If we're conscious of that we'll make choices. Nobody can tell us."

If "How to Be Good" is not Hornby's personal story, he does write it from experience. He and his wife, Virginia Bovell, separated three years ago. They have an autistic son, Danny, who is now 8. The pressures of caring for a severely handicapped boy finally turned the cracks of their relationship into fissures, Hornby says.

His breakup has reinforced his bleak but tenacious view of love and marriage. "Mostly, what we can hope for in a relationship is a fragile truce," he says. "I have a practical view. But I aspire to the better version, the kind of relationship all of us see at times."

He now lives with a new love in north London, a few blocks away from his son and Bovell. He sees them almost every day and he is the main source of income for TreeHouse, the school for autistic children that he and Bovell founded in London.

Last year he edited a collection of short stories, "Speaking With the Angel" (Riverhead Books), as a fund-raising project for the school.

Hornby contributed a short story to the collection, but his introduction to the book is a better reminder of what makes him memorable. Even here, in a detailed account of life with an autistic child, he comes across as honest but tenderhearted, everyday but not average, a socially conscious cult icon. All that can't possibly fit inside one package. Not usually.

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