Viking £18.99 (249pp) £17.09 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Juliet, Naked, By Nick Hornby

Compassionate comeback for the tracker of our tears

Can it be 17 years since Nick Hornby scored so gloriously on his debut with Fever Pitch, a book written with such youthful disregard for literary form? There were groans of disbelief in publishing circles that he was kicking off his career with a memoir about football. Men don't read, let alone football fans, was the field of play at the time, especially with a sensitive and elegantly crafted examination of male brittleness as a goal.

Men get a tough time in Hornby's novels, and age seems to wither them further. Rob Fleming in his first novel High Fidelity is a comic and exuberant character whose obsession with music and lists conceals a fragile soul incapable of normal relationships. One of his favourite songs is "Tired of Being Alone". If there is redemption and feel-good in that novel, then Will Freeman in About a Boy embodies anguished fecklessness to a degree that creeps close to the A-side of weird.

Perhaps in a step away from the psychic sock of the lonely male, How to be Good is narrated by Katie Carr, a doctor who thanklessly attempts to cure husband David of what could be seen as a bipolar condition. From the Angriest Man in Holloway to a do-gooder giving away his money and offering his spare room to the homeless, David succeeds in getting everything wrong. The comedy is bittersweet but Hornby invests Kate with resilience and humanity despite the zero return of the novel's last line: "I catch a glimpse of the night sky behind David, and I see that there's nothing out there at all".

A Long Way Down plays a neat foursome with the "less than zero" option. Two men and two women meet at the top of a tower block and contemplate suicide. The women have relationship problems but it is the men who are the more obvious failures. Chat-show host Martin Sharp has "pissed his life away" and spent three months in prison for sleeping with a 15-year-old girl, while ex-rock star JJ, now a pizza delivery man, wants to "take the Vincent Van Gogh route out of this world". Suicide is cool.

Now we have Juliet, Naked: a return to the groove of High Fidelity, but in a more scratched and pitted world, the stylus of life blunted by time and repetition. Duncan, an older version of Rob, is stuck in a dull northern seaside town, with a job that barely taxes him and an all-consuming obsession with the music of Tucker Crowe, an American singer-songwriter who has produced nothing for 22 years. Duncan's partner, Annie, is similarly washed-up and can only occasionally scrape together "a faint conditional affection" for her man. Like many Hornby heroines, she is another "smart woman obliterated by their men". Her deep melancholy is profoundly affecting.

When Tucker releases Juliet, Naked, a demo of his last album, Duncan sings its praises in messianic fashion on the internet, while Annie thinks it's crap. When she expresses her disdain in a blog, Tucker begins a correspondence with her that transforms both their lives. "The internet had changed everything: nobody was forgotten now".

Tucker Crowe doesn't know who he is or how to authenticate himself. His identity has been stripped bare by the numerous false versions created by fans on the net, as if he's been forensically dissected until there's nothing left. Annie's scepticism begins to restore what's left of his integrity.

Juliet, Naked is funny, wise and humane, and Hornby's observations are as witty and pointed as ever. Tucker Crowe looms large like a Pink Floyd inflatable - baggy, blackly humorous, overburdened, over-sexed and mired in regret: "his whole life slipped away without him noticing". He is searching for "a woman who admires fecklessness and indolence in a man". Despite his catastrophic flaws, he's an endearing personality, a survivor who brings Annie back to life even when "anything to do with getting older rarely indicates good news" The good news is Hornby's artistry: his keen eye and compassion for everyman's misdirection, for bent and broken lives that may never be repaired but can at least grow old disgracefully.

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