Reviewing a debut is a little bit different from reviewing a novel by an established author. Arguably, a debut allows you to review a book almost as a standalone object; the instant you pick up a book by an established author, an author you’ve presumably read other books by, there is a part of you (possibly a teeny-tiny voice at the back of your head, hiding in the metaphorical undergrowth, but present all the same) playing ‘is this as good as X?’, ‘will this drop the ball like Y did?’ or ‘will this be as good or better than Z?’ You can’t help yourself. Even if it delivers on all fronts, even if it excels your wildest expectations, it’s still the latest jigsaw piece in a jigsaw puzzle of their other books. I’m going to try and hold off doing that with Nick Hornby’s latest Juliet, Naked. If only for a wee while.
Juliet Naked begins in a toilet in Minneapolis. Duncan and his longstanding girlfriend Annie are on a pilgrimage of sorts checking out the key geographical locations that figured in the life of long-lost reclusive cult singer songwriter Tucker Crowe. The aforementioned toilet is allegedly the place in which Tucker gave up the rock’n’roll life forever. For Duncan, the toilet is a holy place; for Annie – well, for Annie the place is, not unusually, a toilet. In many ways, the location that saw the end of Tucker Crowe’s career turns out to be the location from which Duncan and Annie start to unravel. Duncan is what you might call an enthusiast: he teaches classes on American TV shows (such as The Wire) and he runs a website devoted to Tucker Crowe. At one point, Annie – who is herself the curator for a small, neglected museum in Gooleness (which is a seaside town down the road from Hull, apprently) – talks about Tucker as being like Duncan’s disability (whereas Duncan himself thinks of Tucker as ‘their’ child).
Tucker himself hasn’t been heard of for a couple of decades. Another fan snapped a Salinger-esque snap of someone who all of the ‘Crowologists’ regard as being Tucker Crowe twenty years on (although it is in fact Tucker Crowe’s neighbour, Farmer John – whom everyone refers to as Fucker, itself an oblique contraction of Fake Tucker), but aside from that – nothing, nothing other than conjecture among the dozen or so Crowologists on Duncan’s website, nothing until the release of a ‘new’ album, Juliet, Naked, a demo version of the one album that the world and his wife seem to agree is Tucker Crowe’s definitive classic. So: Duncan receives an advance copy and writes the kind of review only a zealout in thrall to his hero could write. For Annie, the review is so wrongheaded, she is inspired – for seemingly the first time in her life – to write a response, and the response elicits an email from one Tucker Crowe.
At which point, narratorially speaking, enter the real Tucker Crowe from stage left. Tucker is in the midst of what turns out to be the latest in a long series of failing relationships. Certain other reviewers have criticised Hornby’s characterisation of Tucker for not ringing true (‘this is not how a reclusive former cult singer songwriter would act’ the criticisms seem to run). For this reader, though, Tucker – and indeed all of the characters in Juliet, Naked – have the watermark of truth about them and, perhaps most importantly, over the course of the novel, I came to care about Tucker and Jackson and Annie and even, although to a lesser extent, Duncan (who is a classic overthinker, a character that will ring true with a number of Hornby’s readers I’m sure, and a bolshy twit, certainly, but who in a sense learns his lesson). Hornby’s great skill is in dissecting the ways in which men and women fit (or don’t fit) together. The back and forth we get between Duncan and Annie in the opening chapters is a delight and up there with the best of Hornby’s writing (I said I wouldn’t compare but the odd superlative can’t hurt can it?).
There have been reviews of Juliet, Naked that seem to take issue with it for not being a different book (castigating Hornby for even introducing Tucker, wanting the book to be about the failure of a relationship, Richard Yates stylee). This is the book that Hornby wanted to write. And he has done a great job of it. If you’ve enjoyed Hornby in the past, if you’ve read a Hornby a long time ago and not read much since then, Juliet, Naked is the perfect opportunity to reacquaint yourself.
Any Cop?: Okay, okay I’ll do it, I’ll do what I said I wasn’t going to do: The best Nick Hornby novel since High Fidelity.