novel | Slam, By Nick Hornby, Putnam Juvenile, $19.99, 304 pages
Nick Hornby writes about dudes with guy-specific emotional issues, the sorts of problems that cause men to be lonely, because women are always imploring them to grow up.
In his most famous novel, "High Fidelity," Record Store Dude blows a perfectly nice relationship with a perfectly nice woman, gets depressed and tracks down old girlfriends for a journey into his love psyche.
In "About a Boy," Independently Wealthy Dude dates and dates and dates but never settles down, watches a lot of television and meets a young boy who takes him on a journey of another sort.
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Both men eventually straighten up. Both books became best-sellers and were transformed into well-received movies. In essence, Hornby has devised a successful framework on which to build his stories, and with no reason to do otherwise, sticks with it in his snappy new novel, "Slam."
This time, though, the man-boy has been transformed into a boy-man.
Sam is 16, rides a skateboard and takes his dates to McDonald's. He probably doesn't study as hard as he should. Pro skater Tony Hawk is his hero, and for inspiration, he speaks to a Hawk poster that hangs in his bedroom.
All in all, the kid enjoys a pretty good life. He even snags a pretty girlfriend, Alicia, who lives in a neighborhood not far from his in London.
Then she gives him some news that changes his life, and Sam turns out to be a philosopher.
"There are many differences between a baby and an iPod. And one of the biggest differences is, no one's going to mug you for your baby."
As the product of a single mother still young enough that his buddies want to date her, Sam grew up with one idea pounded into his head: Do not become a teenage father. But then it happens, and "Slam," Hornby's first novel aimed at teen readers, spends its pages unraveling the young man's thoughts about impending fatherhood, his relationship with his own father, his mother, Alicia and her parents.
It's a slight twist on the Hornby boilerplate, this idea of a boy being pushed into acting like a man, and it's a welcome one. Sam, like most Hornby protagonists, still obsesses about sex, even if it's in a slightly different manner. First, Sam can't wait to have it. Then, after learning he will be a father, decides never to have it again.
This is not to say that Hornby shouldn't reach back into his well, because it's a deep one, filled with the sort of stuff to which guys can relate. Even though "Slam" was written for teenagers -- boys, most likely -- you need not be one to fall into the mind of Sam, who is a witty and sincere young man. If you were ever a teenage boy, or have ever met one, you can relate.
Like a Hornby character, "Slam" has a few issues, one of which is that even though Sam isn't supposed to be a genius, he can talk like one. Perhaps it was a stretch for Hornby, a true pop-culture intellectual, to transform his voice into that of a teenage boy.
But don't let that keep you from peeking into "Slam," a remarkably quick and fun read. It might even keep you from your own issues for a few hours.