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I’m very methodical in my process of picking the next book to read when I’m finished with one. Sometimes it is a very intentionally reasoned switch from humorous nonfiction to bleak fiction, from a short, snappy play to an even shorter and even snappier poetry anthology. Then again, sometimes I’m reading a good author and I want to read more of him. Hence the reason why a William Faulkner collection of short stories that I started about 3 weeks ago is stubbornly stuck at page 30, and I’ve skipped over it to get to a Nick Hornby novel. Sorry, Bill. Slam was calling my name.
Slam, from what I’m told, and I have to believe it’s true, is a young adult novel (YA to us former and current bookstore employees), and possibly Hornby’s only novel of the sort. I haven’t looked into it but the reason I believe it is because it came from a reliable source. The other reason I believe it is because it’s about a 16-year-old kid named Sam who knocks up his girlfriend, is obsessed with Tony Hawk, and talks to his poster for life advice. (Tony Hawk sort of talks back, but you’ll have to pick up the book yourself to find out more about that.) It’s not actually just Sam’s story that leads me to confirm this book’s place on the shelves between Twilight and The Hunger Games (it’s not like that though, I promise! I just don’t know many YA books that I can classify as such). It’s the fact that it was narrated by Sam. Now, I’ve never been in the mind of a 16-year-old boy before, but obviously Hornby has, so I have to believe it is an accurate portrayal. That being said, the world of a 16-year-old boy, as told by a 16-year-old boy, is definitely the stuff of YA.
Before this turns off you serious readers who spend your evenings huddled under an afghan blanket with your pince nez pressed to the pages of Proust and Homer, you should know a few things about Sam. His voice in Slam is achingly endearing and naïve. When he acts dumb or has dumb thoughts, which happens a lot, he calls himself out on it. He is fighting to be a grown man, but at the end of the day runs home to his mom when things are tough. And he still acts impetuous, a refreshing change of pace for us older readers who are pretty set in our daily routines, and an unplanned trip to Starbucks is the wild part of our day. For example, Sam runs away to a beach town in Britain when he finds out about the baby, throws his cell phone into the water, and makes a living for a day walking a cranky, poisonous old man up and down the stairs of an inn before returning home to London, tail between his legs. But the best thing about Sam is his complete belief in the future, that almost reckless assurance that things will all work out, because you are young and because they have to.
The other best thing about Sam is that he is a skateboarder, and completely in love with Tony Hawk. Tony Hawk’s own autobiography acts as the Bible in Sam’s world, and when things get tough Sam talks to his Tony Hawk poster about it, and Tony Hawk always has an answer, even if it’s one Sam doesn’t like. In a few instances, Tony Hawk sends Sam into the future, right when he thinks that everything is falling apart, which was a little hard to grasp as I was reading it. Sam himself is torn between wondering if it actually happens or if he just dreams it, and these were perhaps the most annoying parts of the novel for me, as I don’t appreciate the elements of fantasy creeping into my grittier real life stories. However, I think they served their purpose.
Even after seeing several glimpses of a challenging future with a baby, a part-time college career, and an estranged girlfriend/baby mama, when Sam is zapped back into the present day, he has the courage to stay the same course. I wouldn’t even call it courage though, because swallowing his fear and doing the right thing isn't his only motivating factor. He does it because it's his life, and he has earned it. But he also wants to see past it, to see a world where things come together eventually, where you have a fantastic little boy, an agreeable ex, a great career as a graphic designer, and all the time in the world to skate and skate and skate.
When the novel ends, we don’t see Sam accomplishing all of these things. We see Sam completely bogged down in his new and unexpected life, at the still fragile age of 18. But, much like the message in most of Hornby’s novels, he is surviving. He has come to this place and realized it as his own, as well as the fact that that’s the most any of us can hope to do. His special blend of believing in what's real and believing in what's possible may put him light years ahead of the Proust crowd. Afterall, Sam figured this credo out at 18. Me? I’m still learning.