By Ron Charles
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
By Nick Hornby
Riverhead. 406 pp. $25.95
"Juliet, Naked," Nick Hornby's charming new novel about love and music, sounds like a song we've heard before, but who's complaining? After all, we always expect Bruce Springsteen to sound like Bruce Springsteen, and we want him to play "Glory Days" over and over again. In the same spirit, "Juliet, Naked" echoes the melodies we know from "High Fidelity," Hornby's breakout novel -- could it be 14 years ago? -- about a lovelorn music fanatic.
Nobody captures the zealous devotion and bizarre intensity of amateur music snobs better. Yet Hornby's own writing on the subject, in the Believer and his irresistible collection "Songbook" (2002), is marked by modesty and insight. He gently satirizes rockaphiles in a way that only endears him to them, and though this new novel will appeal to a broad audience for romantic comedy, anyone with a fading poster of Van Morrison will hum along, too.
The opening scene presents a classic example of ludicrous devotion: "They had flown from England to Minneapolis," Hornby begins, "to look at a toilet." Naturally, this isn't just any toilet; it's the hallowed restroom of a small club in which a once famous musician named Tucker Crowe experienced a life-altering epiphany 22 years ago and then vanished: "No new recordings, no gigs, no interviews. . . . That toilet has a lot to answer for."
The person demanding answers from this life-changing toilet is Duncan, an Englishman and one of the greatest "Crowologists." He's wrapping up a three-week "Tucker Crowe pilgrimage" across America, visiting any place that holds a Crowe connection. He and a few hundred other middle-aged men around the world -- "the Crowe community" -- keep the flame burning on their slavish Web sites and message boards, subjecting every old note, lyric and rumor about Crowe's personal life to Talmudic examination.
He's a marvelous creation -- "a boring, faithless nerd," only sporadically aware of how pathetic his obsession is -- but the real focus of this novel is his partner, Annie. After years of sleepwalking through life with Duncan, she's bored but can't generate enough energy to break free. Childless and lonely, she works at an ailing seaside museum, a sad reflection of her static, archival existence. "She had genuinely believed," Hornby writes, "that not doing things would somehow prevent regret, when, of course, the exact opposite was true." She and Duncan have been living in the suspended animation of graduate school for so long that they've almost given up hope. "Annie felt less like a girlfriend than a school chum who'd come to visit in the holidays and stayed for the next twenty years."
She might have wasted another 20 years with Duncan and his Internet buddies if not for the surprising release of a new CD by Tucker Crowe called "Juliet, Naked," a collection of acoustic demos of the songs on Crowe's old cult classic "Juliet." An argument over the new-old album brings Annie and Duncan's frustrations with each other to the surface and precipitates a highly unlikely encounter with Crowe that transforms their lives.
As usual, Hornby's dialogue between exasperated women and clueless men hits all the right comic notes. The likable slackers who mope through his stories appeal to that stuck and frustrated adolescent in us all. While wicked novelists like Jonathan Franzen or Claire Messud expose our pettiest thoughts and snicker at them, Hornby's gentle satire of arrested development offers a comforting, shame-free sense of recognition. You may want to knock some sense into his Peter Pans, but you also want to give 'em a hug.
That's particularly true of the faded songwriter at the center of "Juliet, Naked," Crowe himself. Though he's left a number of disappointed girlfriends, wives and children in his wake, he's nothing like the mysterious genius whom Duncan and his fellow Crowologists gossip about every night on the Web. Clearly, Hornby is channeling some of his own chagrined amusement with the awkwardness of fame. Several years ago he wrote an essay about how strange he felt when "suddenly all sorts of people, people I didn't know or like or respect, had opinions about me and my work. . . . And I was shown this horrible reflection of myself and what I did, a funfair hall-of-mirrors reflection, all squidged-up and distorted -- me, but not me." Crowe experiences that same sense of disorientation, but the novel subjects his greatest fan to a witty bit of comeuppance, too.
Some of the story's sweetest episodes involve Crowe's anxious 6-year-old son, the musician's last shot at redeeming his dissipated life. Tempted to slide back into his old habits, this befuddled dad realizes, once again, that in the end it's not about what he wants, it's about a boy. For all his laddish expertise, Hornby has perfect pitch for the poignancy of parenthood. It's no surprise that his first literary love was the novels of Anne Tyler. You can hear her quirky mixture of comedy and moral anguish playing in the background of "Juliet, Naked."
Still, I can't help feeling a little disappointed that this immensely talented writer isn't willing to move outside his comfort zone. So much of this new novel recalls his earlier work, including a tendency toward cloying moralizing, and 400 pages is a lot to balance on the back of one's charm. "Juliet, Naked" suffers from a kind of chronic mildness, the literary equivalent of Easy Listening. The title is more erotic than anything between these covers, and even a surprise heart attack is of the distinctly non-threatening kind that nudges the plot along without breaking a sweat. Yes, Hornby deserves all the success and affection he's received, but it's time to pick up the tempo.
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