Imagine, if you will, that the record store clerks of Nick Hornby’s classic 1996 homage to music fandom have aged a few years past the cusp of 40. Instead of top five lists, they have a single obsession: a reclusive singer-songwriter from the eighties named Tucker Crowe, who, soon after releasing his magnum opus, Juliet, an ode to a failed adulterous romance with a beautiful Los Angeles scenester (“a darker, more fully realized collection of songs than Blood on the Tracks“), is last seen walking out of public toilet in a Minneapolis rock club and never records again. Rather than bullying the uninitiated masses with the poor fortune to wander into their store, these guys have the Internet, where they are free to spend most their days swapping trivia and ill-gotten photographs, and analyzing song lyrics in the privacy of their own self-policing superfandom.
If you now imagine being the long-suffering girlfriend of one of these dudes, you are a long way to understanding the tension at the heart of Hornby’s fifth novel, a charming and satirical ode to the pleasures of art and the dangers of loving another’s art just a little too much.
Despite being the very definition of an insufferable blowhard, Duncan, the superfan, is the funniest and most pitch-perfect character in the novel. This is the kind of guy whose idea of going on holiday is to drag his girlfriend first to Minneapolis, on a search for clues in the aforementioned public toilet, then to San Francisco, where he ditches her to spend the day casing out the last-known residence of Crowe’s long-estranged lover, Juliet Beatty. As he does so, he congratulates himself for being a more “serious” fan than the lone teenager engaged in the same activity because he, unlike the teen, is able to cite Crowe’s influences — “Dylan and Leonard Cohen, of course, but also Dylan Thomas, Johnny Cash, Gram Parsons, Shelly, the Book of Job, Camus, Pinter, Beckett and early Dolly Parton” — though he must acknowledge to himself that “people who didn’t understand all this might look at them and decide, erroneously, that they were similar. Both of them had the same need to stand in front of fucking Juliet’s house, for example.” Though Duncan, a middle-aged professor, has a few other interests — 1970s American cinema, the novels of Nathanael West, The Wire — everything else is just a “flirtation”: “Tucker Crowe was his life-partner. If Tucker Crowe were to die — to die in real life, as it were, rather than creatively — Duncan would lead the mourning.” (He has, naturally, already prepared the obituary).
This doesn’t sit particularly well with the person who seems to be his actual life partner, Annie, who feels “less like a girlfriend than a school chum who’d come to visit on the holidays and stayed for the next twenty years.” As two of the few liberal arts graduates in a sleepy seaside English town called Gooleness — at each mentionof it I could hear Morrissey crooning about “the seaside town / they forgot to close down” — they were matched up by friends in a sort of “arranged marriage” in their early 20s, then “stayed like that forever, stuck in a perpetual postgraduate world where gigs and books and films mattered more to them than they did to other people of their age.” At 39, Annie works at the local museum, where she curates an exhibit on perhaps the most exciting year in the town’s history, the summer of ’64, when the Stones played and a 25-foot shark washed up on the local beach and died. But she is beginning to feel that all their free time is “sort of…decadent“ and idly wishes for a child, though “neither of them would have felt comfortable applying cement to their relationship in that way.”
Enter Tucker Crowe to disturb their torpor. By chance, Annie is the only one at home when the postman comes bearing Duncan’s Holy Grail, a freshly released promo CD of a stripped-down version of Juliet, suitably named Juliet Naked. In a fit of disobedience, she listens to it first. She is right to assume that Duncan will take this as an act of “naked aggression,” but then she commits an even more unpardonable sin: She finds it boring (“like listening to one of those people you’ve never heard of who comes onstage at lunchtime in a folk festival”). Naturally Duncan, following the music geek’s rule that a track’s genius is in direct ratio to its obscurity, finds the record revelatory and takes Annie’s indifference to it as, in her words, “a moral failing” and a “character weakness.” Annie, in a rare act of spunk, posts her dissenting opinion next to Duncan’s on the Crowe fan site (though he remains skeptical that she is “qualified” to match the “expertise” of his fellow Internet Crowologists).
Here’s where things get good: Tucker Crowe, the genius, as it turns out, is now a stay-at-home Little League dad of a six-year-old boy, living in suburban Pennsylvania, and supported by his much younger wife. The wild-eyed, bearded man thought to be Crowe by Duncan and his cronies is actually Crowe’s neighbor, formerly known as Farmer John, who, since being captured on camera by a crazed Crowe fan who mistook him for his hero, is now known as Fucker (for “Fake Tucker,” a nickname even funnier when it comes out of the mouth of Crowe’s six-year-old, Jackson). Annie learns all this when Crowe, who prefers her seemingly blasphemous review to Duncan’s, strikes up an email romance with her. Meanwhile, the world’s leading Crowologist, disillusioned by his tone-deaf girlfriend, takes a stab at having his first-ever affair, choosing a henna-haired colleague.
Once one realizes that the narrative train seems to be headed toward a fanboy being cuckolded by his true “life partner,” the notion is so delicious that one can forgive a few rom-com-ready sleights of hand. One tries not to think to hard about the silliness of both Annie and Tucker being conveniently ditched by their unfaithful partners within 24 hours of one another or to wonder aloud if a 55-year-old “serial husband” whose six-year-old son is already obsessed with his father’s impending mortality is really the best partner for a 39-year-old childless woman. Instead, one can cackle with wicked appreciation when Duncan laments, “If you imagined it all as a department store, he was in basement, with the lamps and the dishes; the Juliets were all in Ladies Intimates, a couple of escalator rides away” — all the while not knowing that the lamp he recently cast off is on the fast track to possibly becoming his hero’s new Juliet.
Hornby has the grace and restraint to duck out while the fate of all of his characters are still an open question: In the words of Tucker: “The truth about life is was that nothing ever ended until you died, and even then you just left a whole bunch of unresolved narratives behind you.” But once again, he’s crafted a perfect pop song of a novel: Warm and funny, with a disarmingly familiar chorus of voices that disguises just how difficult this kind of act is to pull off.