LET'S GET this out of the way early on: Fever Pitch. There, said it. Whether he likes it or not, Nick Hornby must live with the fact that very few people can say his name without mentioning that first book in the same breath. It did, after all, bring him fame and fortune - even before being adapted into a poor but popular film. It also influenced an entire sporting industry, playing a considerable part in the acceptance of football as a proper pursuit for nice middle-class boys.
The peculiar status of Fever Pitch as a kind of autobiography that felt like fiction enabled the publishers to promote his second book, High Fidelity, as his first novel. Thankfully this was an even better piece of work, the story of an emotionally underdeveloped record shop owner obsessed not with football but music. In it, Hornby perfected his ability to write about male feelings in a way that both sexes can identify with - the men marvelling that someone has found a way to describe their most vulnerable and unappealing moments without quite abandoning them as pathetic, the women giving jeers of recognition that sometimes even give way to understanding.
About A Boy is novel number two then, and as such it suffers from what the lead character in High Fidelity would recognise as Second Album Syndrome. This is what happens when a new band bursts onto the music scene (as they say in such circles) with a debut recording that draws on a well of creativity stored up during years of obscurity, then goes to make a follow-up and finds that the source has run dry. The solution is often to fall back on the ideas and structures that were so successful the first time around.
The world described by About A Boy will be very familiar to the Hornby fan. Its protagonist, Will, is a thirtysomething who hasn't quite grown up (in his case because he hasn't had to, being the beneficiary of regular and generous royalty cheques from a Christmas novelty single, written by his father many years ago). He lives in North London, doesn't quite understand women, and assesses people on the basis of the music they listen to (an authorial shorthand that worked better in High Fidelity, when the songs in question were usually classics from the past, than it does in About A Boy, concerned as it is with Nirvana, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and other music of 1993, and therefore feels instantly dated and awkward, neither nostalgic nor contemporary).
The difference, of course, is the boy Marcus, the bright but unworldly product of dysfunctional parents, who is drawn by events into contact with Will and sees him as the epitome of cool. Since cool is what Marcus doesn't have, and what he needs to stop people beating him up in the playground, he latches on to Will.
For his part Will does not need to work, so has the time and money to devour style magazines and follow their guidance - and being without much experience or personality, the current definition of cool is about all he has to offer anyone. The scene is set, then, for a sequence of events that moves slowly and predictably towards a happy ending, in which Will and other troubled individuals achieve various forms of redemption. It trundles along nicely enough, but there are very few of the jaw-dropping "God-let-me-just-read-you-this-bit" moments of comedy or insight one now expects from Hornby.
Worse is the growing suspicion that even Marcus, a boy with bad hair but perception and humour beyond his years, is just another, shorter version of the standard Hornby male. As attempts to get inside the mind of a young man go, this sure ain't Paddy Clarke.
At the end of Fever Pitch, the author describes watching Michael Thomas break through the Liverpool defence to score the goal that won Arsenal the 1989 League Championship. Reading his new book, one feels as Gunners fans must when watching that moment on video, nearly a decade later. Thomas still scores, the crowd still cheers, the components are all there - but it is nowhere near as exciting as the first time around. Describing that moment of victory as sweeter for the fan than either sex or the birth of a child, Hornby wrote that real life was "paler, duller and contains less potential for unexpected delirium" - words that also serve to describe About A Boy. It's not bad, but from him that's just not good enough.