Musty smell of old 45s

HIGH FIDELITY by Nick Hornby, Gollancz £14.99
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The Independent Culture
FOOTBALL provided the mise-en-scne for Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch, but it was neither the book's theme nor the reason for its remarkable success. Readers of all types responded to the warmth of Hornby's voice, beguiled by his enthusiasm, his despair, his humanity and his jokes. You could hardly get on a bus, a train or a plane last year without seeing somebody absorbed in the story of a boy-man's obsession with Arsenal FC. Most of his readers were no more likely to be planning a visit to Highbury than those of Wild Swans would be to book a fortnight in Beijing on the strength on Jung Chang's tale. Yet somehow Hornby kept them all entertained. The question was, could he do it again? And could he do it without football?

In High Fidelity, Hornby's first novel, the place of football is taken by pop music. This is a less surprising setting for a middle-class author born in the mid-1950s, but it serves Hornby well, because his knowledge and love of the subject is of similar dimension and focus: deep and narrow. He treats it with the same unquestioning reverence. It is as if nothing else existed, except girls. And so close is the tone to that of Fever Pitch that the reader's instinct is to accept the intimacy of the voice, allowing it to obliterate the distinction between fiction and non-fiction.

The best way to convey the effect to those who missed Hornby's big hit, or who doubt his ability to recreate the magic, is to listen to the world- view of the protagonist of High Fidelity. Rob Fleming, 35 years old, the proprietor of a north London record store, muses on the loss of a girl, employing the only language he knows: "Some of my favourite songs: `Only Love Can Break Your Heart' by Neil Young; `Last Night I Dreamed That Somebody Loved Me' by The Smiths; `Call Me' by Aretha Franklin; `I Don't Want to Talk About It' by anybody. And then there's `Love Hurts' and `When Loves Breaks Down' and `The Speed of the Sound of Loneliness' and `She's Gone' and `I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself' and ... some of these songs I have listened to around once a week, on average (three hundred times in the first month, every now and again thereafter), since I was sixteen or nineteen or twenty-one. How can that not leave you bruised somewhere? How can that not turn you into the sort of person liable to break into little bits when your first love goes all wrong? What came first, the music or the misery?"

Where Fever Pitch smelled of Bovril and bad hamburgers, High Fidelity has the strange musty odour of old 45s in wooden browser bins. With horrible authenticity, Hornby recreates the world of the Saturday-afternoon vinyl addict as Rob Fleming drifts into a job at the Record and Tape Exchange, picking up the marginal expertise necessary to open his own shop, in which a couple of stooges are used to deflect insufficiently knowledgeable customers. But the story is really about girls, and about commitment. In between the lists of records and films there is some funny and honest stuff about sex and love and male insecurity, moved along by a deceptively dishevelled plot. Hornby can turn little tricks, making you laugh at a half-page vignette or an unexpected reference, but he also plays adroitly with your sympathies over the course of 250 pages.

If he were less of a romantic, the ending would be different, and perhaps more bracing. But Hornby has earned the right to give Rob a glimpse of heaven; and, unlike Fever Pitch, this is not supposed to be real life. Like its predecessor, however, it will give enormous pleasure at the same time as expanding, in a small but worthwhile way, the range of English literature, and only snobbery can stand in the way of a nomination for one of the big prizes.

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