On Nick Hornby and Neighborliness

20 Aug

Hornby window

Most people probably know the novels of Nick Hornby through the witty  films they have inspired. In High Fidelity, John Cusack plays a record shop owner who responds to a breakup by visiting past girlfriends, trying to understand the path to where he’s wound up; in About a Boy, Hugh Grant portrays a charming rogue who befriends a boy and pretends to be his father, in order to impress a woman. As in most comedies, redemption comes for protagonists almost despite themselves, with plenty of levity to ward off even a hint of corniness.

While I’m fond of both films, this summer I finally got around to reading two of Hornby’s novels, given to me a while back by a friend. Well, by “a while,” I mean “years ago,” and by “given,” I mean one was definitely a present, and the other might’ve been lent – and I sincerely hope the one I cluttered with scribbles and underlines was the gift. (If not, it is now.)

While Juliet Naked is a satire of the on-line personality cults that form around obscure rock musicians – to be too well-known would make a musician unworthy of such fans’ attention – How To Be Good is more obviously relevant to the theme of this blog. I am a believer in avoiding spoilers whenever possible – I’m the type who closes his eyes during overly detailed movie previews – so I’ll strive to avoid that sin here. Suffice it to say that someone in a troubled marriage does a sudden midlife crisis reverse-course and becomes consumed with doing as much good in the world as possible, turning the life of the family upside-down in the process. It’s dark and hilarious and darkly hilarious, and brings into the light every bit of guilt and doubt any reflective, caring person harbors about whether their lifestyle goes far enough in helping others. As the great satirists always do, Hornby’s verbal wit and comic staging does more to delve into the issues than the deadly earnestness of the average sermon.

So there. Go read it.

The point of this blog, however, is the circumstances in which I read the last third of. How To Be Good – sitting outside in a collapsible canvas chair, the kind people usually tote to the beach. Only, where their feet might’ve  been sunk in sand, mine were digging into cedar mulch. In front of me was a short trim shrub, behind me a larger one, and behind that the apartment of one of my neighbors, whose name I didn’t know.

Why was this happening? Why was I now proceeding down the road to becoming the crazy old man of the complex, and getting there 20 years earlier than planned?

Perfectly logical. The lock on my mailbox was broken, so I had no choice but to sit outside, in the only shade available, waiting for the postman to come.

The first day, he didn’t.

This is what happened instead. For a while I read my Hornby, mostly about a quest to talk neighbors into taking in homeless children – the first obstacle being the fact that the organizers didn’t even know their neighbors’ names. The irony was just too obvious, so I actually broke from the reading to talk with my own neighbors. A young couple had a mattress strapped to the roof of their car, and a child atop the mattress – clearly hoping he could talk them into letting him ride there. One lady talked with me from her balcony about nothing in particular. A younger woman I’d never seen popped her hood to pour in some coolant, and since she was far more nicely attired in her work clothes,  I lent my services and my funnel. In the process I learned that we shared the same mailbox issue.

Finally, a fiftyish man, bald but wiry and energetic, arrived in a pickup and carted a box up to the front door, pausing there to find his keys. He glanced over and said hello; it dawned on me that I had on my hands not only a new neighbor, but one whose first impression of me would forever be that of the eccentric who reads novels amid the shrubbery.

Some level of offsetting social engagement was required, and, since I could not very well ignore my neighbor’s move while reading  How To Be Good, I toted him several armloads from his pickup truck. Promisingly, two boxes I toted were his home beer-brewing kit and the corresponding equipment for wine-making – he promised samples from both. He turned out to be my next-door neighbor, so I showed him into my apartment, so he could see my own approach to the layout.

It occurred to me that most neighbors never trod in these walls – something that, despite bouts of loneliness, I rarely thought of doing. And even though I’m friendlier than most, when the newcomer asked the names of a couple across the hall, I couldn’t help him.

Despite being disappointing in that regard, I must’ve made an impression, because my new friend – wow, I guess I can call him that now – promised to give me the bird feed from his old house. (I would find the bird feed, if not the beer, on my doormat four days later.)

By the time he took off, it was clear enough that I’d missed the postman –which meant having to do this whole routine again the next morning. But that was all right. I was actually looking forward to it. I would read more about “how to be good” – and visit with my neighbors, who would remind me that so often, goodness starts with connection.

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