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FICTION

About a Boy

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

SLAM

By Nick Hornby

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Putnam. 309 pp. $19.99. Ages 14-up.

"Listen," says Sam Jones, the garrulous young narrator of Nick Hornby's likable first novel for teenagers, "I know you don't want to hear about every single little moment." He then relives every single little moment anyway, and that's just about one date with a pretty girl. But he's wrong about us. We want to hear whatever this kid has got to say -- the whole scary, hilarious story.

It's not that Sam's tale, stripped to its bones, is all that different from a million other YA novels. His involves a boy; the boy's struggling young single mom ( mum, actually -- this is London); a girl; the girl's posh, bickering parents; a surprise pregnancy; the baby's arrival; and the messy aftermath. Other novels might sub in a different crisis -- drugs, alcohol, racism, illness or disability, a sibling's death, whatever. But lots of them turn on what Sam, a skateboarder, calls a slam. His own life illustrates. There it was, "ticking along quite nicely," until the day the pretty girl, Alicia, alerted him to his impending fatherhood, and he realized that "the wheels had come off the trucks, the trucks had come off the deck, and [he'd] shot twenty feet into the air and gone straight into a brick wall."

That voice is the difference.

As Sam says, "You can tell someone the facts in ten seconds if you want to, but the facts are nothing." You have to know what it feels like to suddenly become a dad at 16, which is where Sam has an advantage. His creator, the author of several wry sagas of British life, is known for channeling adult male voices with uncanny verisimilitude. It turns out he can channel teenage boys as well. Yet Sam, who is 18 as he recounts the story of his 15- and 16-year-old self, isn't just a junior version of the 30-something hero of High Fidelity. Age-appropriately, he's all over the map. There's teen anguish:

"The boy who was talking to Alicia that afternoon . . . he wasn't sixteen. . . . It feels now, and it felt even then, as though that boy was eight or nine years old. He felt sick, and he wanted to cry. His voice wobbled just about every time he tried to say anything. He wanted his mum."

And there's near-constant teen humor (I'm still laughing about the birth scene and the parental squabbles). But the book's real distinction is conveying the illusion of teen artlessness when it actually pulls off some seriously artful moves. In one effective plot device, Sam has an ongoing, Socratic-type conversation with a poster of his real-life skateboarding hero, Tony Hawk. In another, he's "whizzed" repeatedly into the future, where he finds out how much he will prove capable of.

Hornby just makes it look easy.

-- Elizabeth Ward reviews children's literature for Book World.


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