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“The poetry of media glut.” The phrase is novelist Don DeLillo’s, and he meant it half-mockingly. We Americans wade through the “glut” every day — radio jingles, TV commercials, Internet pop-ups and 24-hour-cable news crawls. Viewed from this lofty pinnacle, our minds are as overfed on junk culture as our bodies are on junk food.
In “White Noise,” Mr. DeLillo had a character dreaming brand-specifically of Toyota Corollas, Celicas and Cressidas. Salman Rushdie, in “Fury,” created a Manhattanite character whose furious head is awash in commercial and celebrity imagery, from prescription drug ads to Madonna.
Nick Hornby, the British novelist, writes a lot like this too: chockablock with proper names and cultural trivia. However, he name-drops with learned affection, lovingly sifting and sorting by class and genre, distilling into Top Five lists. He revels in pop culture and, yes, crafts a kind of poetry from it.
Not to sound like some Stalinist literary commissar, but Nick Hornby is a people’s novelist. His writing (“A Long Way Down,” his fourth novel, is due in June) is elevated enough to qualify as literary fiction, and yet it’s accessible enough for successive Hollywood adaptations such as “High Fidelity,” “About a Boy” and the recently released romantic comedy “Fever Pitch,” which he executive-produced.
More, he contributes to the Believer, a literary magazine that prides itself on giving writers leeway to experiment and fail, as opposed to spare-no-women-or-children tribunes of serious fiction such as Dale Peck and James Wood. He has taken to the Op-Ed page of the New York Times to boost an underdog indie-rock band.
In “Fever,” Jimmy Fallon plays a loyal fan — zealot is more like it — of the Boston Red Sox. The book from which it’s loosely adapted, Mr. Hornby’s 1992 memoir of the same name, was about the author’s analogous zeal for the London soccer team Arsenal.
Mr. Hornby was born outside of London in 1957, soon enough to make him a product of the media age. The son of divorced middle-class parents, he went to an elite university, Cambridge, but says he got lucky.
“The university was actively looking for students who had been educated through the state system, and even my poor A-level results, my half-baked answers to the entrance examination and my hopelessly tongue-tied interview did not prevent me from being granted admission,” he writes in his memoir.
For him, the compulsive consumption of things like soccer and Bruce Springsteen, while admittedly “childish” and far from ennobling, was nonetheless the stuff of identity. Rock, punk, soul and blues songs were inextricably tied to his rites of passage — breakups, depressions, the identification of fellow tribesmen. Unlike Walker Percy’s “Moviegoer,” for whom movies, even the good ones, are ersatz “memorable moments” that distract from life’s “vertical search” for eternal truth — for Nick Hornby the “mediated” and “inauthentic” experiences of pop culture consumption are immediate and personally owned; the inauthentic is the authentic.
Britons of his generation, he said, felt the need for an alternative to the mundane entertainment of suburban postwar England. Hence his omnivorous appetite for vintage American musicians and local sports heroes. “It’s no wonder we all wanted to be Muddy Waters or [soccer star] Charlie George,” Mr. Hornby writes.
Readers of “Fever Pitch” and the 1995 novel “High Fidelity,” the story of romantically embittered London record shop-owner Rob and his lumpen-snob employees Dick and Barry, will recognize right away that Mr. Hornby writes from the perspective of a kindred spirit, rather than a censorious cultural gendarme.
More specifically, he writes like a proud obsessive, a genuinely adoring fan — of soccer, popular and obscure rock, mob movies and other midcult diversions.
He identifies his fanaticism for Arsenal with the masses, saying it’s “no vicarious pleasure.” When the team triumphs, “the pleasure does not radiate from the players outward until it reaches the likes of us at the back of the terraces in a pale or diminished form.” And when it loses disastrously, “the sorrow that engulfs us is, in effect, self-pity … .”
Yet we should be careful in pressing Mr. Hornby’s populist credentials too far. After all, fanaticism for the middlebrow can lead to its own kind of cliquishness.
Remember Jack Black’s Barry in the Chicago-set movie “High Fidelity,” pitying a customer for inquiring about the mawkish Stevie Wonder hit “I Just Called to Say I Love You”?
By Tammy Bruce
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