High Fidelity

September 9, 2010

I’ve had a couple dry spells in my love life. There was a sad yearning patch between girlfriends in college, the one who stayed back home and the one who appeared in my dormitory hallway several months later. And there was another desperate on-and-off-again one that followed me for months (or years, depending on how you count it) and miles from California to Israel and back again. And then the most recent and really tormenting one, two decades ago, when I got too wedded to my first teaching job, my girlfriend took off for sunnier pastures, and the few women I managed to ask out tended to be Born Again or lesbians. So I know what it means to be “dumped” and I know what it means to be an untethered single guy in his teens-20s-30s. I can relate to Rob Fleming. We probably wouldn’t have been mates (I don’t like his music), but I can relate. Really.

And this is why Nick Hornby‘s book works so well. We recognize ourselves. Hornby unflinchingly dissects Fleming’s smallest and most exasperating shortcomings, his lack of success and education, his enormous insecurity, his inability to get on with practically anyone (except the girls he gets into bed with), his need to make lists, and his still-childish approach to life at the tender age of 36. But Hornby also let’s Rob tell his own story and that softens things. Rob justifies himself. He finds a way to wrap himself in small bits of kindness and mercy, even a little wisdom, and we love him for it. Still, when I wasn’t laughing (seldom), or rooting and hoping for Rob to get his way (often), I couldn’t help clucking, “loser, loser, loser …” under my breath.

Fortunately, as the story goes along, Rob not only gets a better handle on being a “loser,” he also starts to get a taste of a better alternative. A late-in-the-book conversation with his girlfriend Laura puts some crucial words in her mouth:

… Laura plows on regardless.

“Do you know that expression, ‘Time on his hands and himself on his mind’? That’s you.”

“So what should I be doing?”

“I don’t know. Something. Working. Seeing people. Running a scout troop, or running a club even. Something more than waiting for life to change and keeping your options open. You’d keep your options open for the rest of your life, if you could. You’ll be lying on your deathbed, dying of some smoking-related disease, and you’ll be thinking, ‘Well, at least I kept my options open. At least I never ended up doing something I couldn’t back out of.’ And all the time you’re keeping your options open, you’re closing them off. …”

Drop by drop, even water can wear away a stone and Laura eventually begins to wear away some of (but only some of) Rob’s immaturity. Here’s a very-late-in-the-book exchange that comes after an evening with a young couple that Laura knows. (Hint: Their musical tastes tend, horrors, towards Tina Turner.)

“You did that deliberately,” I say to her on the way home. “You knew all along I’d like them. It was a trick.”

“Yeah. I tricked you into meeting some people you’d think were great. I conned you into having a nice evening.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Everybody’s faith needs testing from time to time. I thought it would be amusing to introduce you to someone with a Tina Turner album, and then see whether you still felt the same.”

I’m sure I do. Or at least, I’m sure I will. But tonight, I have to confess (but only to myself, obviously) that maybe, given the right set of peculiar, freakish, probably unrepeatable circumstances, it’s not what you like but what you’re like that’s important. …

Hey Rob, don’t give up that easily. Be a guy, a bloke, a Man. Men don’t need directions. We ‘know’ there aren’t any.

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