Friday, November 21, 2008


Nick Hornby's first venture into YA fiction is the story of a 15-year old skateboarding-crazy teen, whose life is just starting to look up when his girlfriend gets pregnant and everything comes crashing down faster than you can say frontside alley-oop. Slam follows an ordinary guy on a journey he never planned, into territory that's intense, sometimes hilarious and as real as it gets.

I'd been thinking about reading Slam for months, since I'm a huge fan of Hornby's other work (High Fidelity, About a Boy, How to Be Good, A Long Way Down). I admire how he manages to create stories about everyday people that are compelling and thought-provoking. I've always thought his books should come with a warning somewhere on the back cover: Attention: Story inside is deeper than it appears. Hornby makes me appreciate the drama of ordinary life. This said, I admit I was a tad put off by the premise of his first YA novel. After all, there are plenty of books out there already that explore teen pregnancy. I had to wonder, couldn't he come up with something a little more unexpected? I was worried that this book would veer into territory that's been done and then some.

Oh Nick. I should never have doubted you. Forgive me?

Of course, the fact that this novel looks at teen pregnancy from the guy's perspective is something a little bit different. One of the real strengths of this book is the way Hornby gets readers inside Sam's head straight off, and keeps you there, caring about this character all the way along, even when he's acting like a jerk (or perhaps just a confused and freaked out kid). The voice is so conversational and honest that you almost feel like you're sitting across the table from Sam sharing some chips while he tells you about his life so far. I love that.

Skateboarding takes centre stage in Sam's life for most of the book. He idolizes the legendary skater, Tony Hawk, and looks to him for advice and wisdom whenever things get rough. Skating is practically Sam's whole world until he meets Alicia and gets caught up in their relationship. Slowly Sam begins to trust his own judgment and strength as he moves towards the scary responsibility of fatherhood, away from being just another kid at the skate park. Hornby captures this transformation, with all of its bumps and wipe-outs, so convincingly and with great sensitivity.

I suppose you could say that this is a "feel good story," which makes it vintage Hornby, and I guess that also makes it different from a lot of the YA novels out there about teen pregnancy. It's about people making choices that aren't easy, and finding good where they can and living with the hard parts life serves up. At no point was I thinking, "It would never turn out like that in the real world." Slam is never moralistic or sentimental. It's the story of one choice, unflinching and complicated, but with a little room for some kind of "happily ever after."

So pick it up - and while you're at it, grab all the rest of Hornby's books too.


Joe Cottonwood said...

Other than the fact that the main characters are teens, what makes this a YA book? Is it marketed as YA? Is the writing style different from his other books? Is it really not of interest to adults?

Seth Christenfeld said...

Joe--it's marketed as a teen book, although I saw no particular difference in tone between it and other Hornby except that the central character is a teenager.

Shelf Elf--I would consider this less of a "feel good" book than a "feel okay" book, in the sense that the overriding feeling at the end is that Sam discovers/realizes that everything is going to be okay--it might not be perfect, but things will work out.

Joe Cottonwood said...

I'm surprised to see this marketed as YA. Many adults (wrongly) see the YA label as a stigma. If they marketed to the usual Hornby audience, teens would find it. Teens don't give a crap whether a book is labeled YA or adult, so what's to gain by calling it YA?

Shelf Elf said...

Seth - I think your "feel okay" assessment is valid. I wouldn't say that this is a neat and tidy, off-into-the-sunset type of ending, that's for sure.

Joe - I agree that lots of teens will seek out their next books in the "adult fiction" sections of bookstores and libraries. I think there are adults who will read this title, and not really think about the fact that it's marketed for YA.

Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...

That raises an interesting discussion. Teens will read UP, but will adults read DOWN?
Do college age Teens and early 20-somethings read YA?

Joe Cottonwood said...

That's exactly my point. A few enlightened ones will read YA, but many consider the YA label a stigma, something they've grown out of. So what's the point of stigmatizing a good book? Why not design the cover and pitch the blurb in a way that appeals to teens but leave off the yucky YA label.