Nick Hornby is Exhibit A in defense of the crusty old adage â€œwrite what you know.â€ He built his reputation on a pair of books that traded on his twin obsessions â€“ football (the autobiographical Fever Pitch) and pop music (his debut novel High Fidelity) â€“ while exploring the impacts of such fixations on interpersonal relationships. His next novel, the brilliant About a Boy (1998), didnâ€™t explore fandom directly, though one of its main characters was a former pop singer who used the residual income from his one big hit to keep the world at bay.
Since then, Hornby has broadened his thematic horizons to encompass religious fervor (How To Be Good), suicide and therapy (A Long Way Down), and teen pregnancy (the â€œyoung adultâ€ novel Slam) â€“ all, unfortunately, with returns considerably diminished from his earlier work. In fact, his most essential work of the last decade was a nonfiction immersion into his music fandom: the essay collection Songbook (titled 31 Songs outside the U.S.), which explores his emotional attachments to tunes by artists ranging from O.V. Wright to Royksopp. Any Popdose loyalist who has not already picked up a copy of Songbook should do so immediately.
With all that in mind, it was welcome news indeed when Penguinâ€™s Riverhead Books subsidiary announced that Hornbyâ€™s new novel would return him to the world of those who create and devour popular music. Indeed, the setup of Juliet, Naked is almost impossibly juicy â€¦ at least from the perspective of a 21st-century music writer like me (and many of you). If you read the excerpt we posted here last week, you already know that Duncan is an obsessive fan of singer-songwriter Tucker Crowe, who walked away from his middling career under mysterious circumstances 20 years ago and has since become the subject of endless conjecture about his past and present lives. As leader of the â€œCrowologists,â€ and administrator of a website devoted to picking apart every detail of the singerâ€™s career, Duncan receives a preview copy of a new CD featuring â€œnakedâ€ demos from Croweâ€™s most acclaimed (and final) album, Juliet.
The divergent emotional responses those demos elicit from Duncan and his longtime girlfriend, Annie, lead to dueling reviews of the disc on Duncanâ€™s website, then to their breakup â€“ and then, soon enough, to Annie receiving an e-mail from the reclusive Tucker himself. That unexpected contact sets the three protagonists on a crash course toward a pseudo-romantic triangle of hilarious proportionsâ€¦
Well, thatâ€™s what should have happened, at least. Sadly, though, after that exquisite buildup, Hornby — despite clearly having reveled in the â€œfactualâ€ details of Tuckerâ€™s career and the barely benign enthusiasm that keeps Duncanâ€™s website (and psyche) afloat — seems to decide that what he really wants to be writing isnâ€™t a music-obsessiveâ€™s comic fantasy after all. Instead, the second act of Juliet, Naked involves two lost souls attempting to figure out what theyâ€™ve been missing over a period of time they now consider wasted â€“ Tucker ruminating over failed marriages and piss-poor parenting, Annie trying to make up for the years she spent in a dead-end relationship with a guy who never seemed to care about her as much as he did about some vanished rock star. Speaking of which, Duncan vanishes almost completely from this middle section â€“ which is a shame, because while his shallow emotional life, compulsive rumor-mongering and atrocious analytical skills donâ€™t reflect particularly well on those of us who pontificate about music in our bathrobes, his character is easily the most interesting of the three.
The witty pas de trois among Tucker, Annie and Duncan does arrive eventually toward the end of the novel, though it is entirely too brief. Still, Hornby redeems himself nicely in the third act, with answers to the novelâ€™s central questions (Why did Tucker shelve his career? Will he ever attempt a comeback? Was his music any good, anyway?) that are both amusing and profound. Hornby also offers some worthy insights into the nature of artistic expression â€“ not the least of which is a matter, given voice by Annie, that Matthew Bolin has occasionally explored here in our own little corner of cyberspace: â€œYou know that bad people can make great art, donâ€™t you?â€
Without the tangents and occasional tedium of its middle section, Juliet, Naked could have been a classic novella about our current, internet-fueled pop-culture moment. As it is, the novel is still Hornbyâ€™s most inspired in more than a decade; now, if only he could find a way to apply that same inspiration to a greater variety of situations that arenâ€™t so obviously near to his own heart.
I imagine Iâ€™ll return to the opening and closing chapters of Juliet, Naked frequently, the same way I return to the first section of Don DeLilloâ€™s Underworld for its riveting portrait of the Giants-Dodgers playoff of 1951 and the â€œshot heard â€™round the world.â€ Clearly, I have my own obsessions â€“ and if theyâ€™re only pursued in certain parts of a work of fiction, I suppose Iâ€™m willing to take what I can get.