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By Stephen Ausherman/Ken Hunt

MAY 24, 1999: 

About a Boy by Nick Hornby (Riverhead, paper, $12.95)

About a Boy, released late last year, is back on the shelves as a paperback. In case you happened to miss the first go-round and all its fanfare, the story focuses on 36-year-old Will Freeman, a shamelessly shallow man who hasn't had to work a day in his life. Thanks to royalties garnered from a popular Christmas ditty his father wrote, he now has everything he could possibly want--except a way with the ladies. So in a desperate attempt to expand his potential dating pool, he invents a two-year-old son and joins a support group for single parents. It's the kind of setup that could easily take on the proportions of a zany new sitcom. But instead of exhausting the comic element of Will's subterfuge, Hornby blows his cover relatively early in the story and ushers in an unexpected relationship between Will and the painfully awkward son of a suicidal hippie.

Hornby does a brilliant job in distinguishing the differences between a boy forced to grow up too fast and a man who never grew up at all. In short, one is pitiful, and the other is just pathetic. Of course, we knew that already. There aren't any hidden meanings in this book, no profound messages. And the story itself is quite predictable. But, damn, it's a fun read. Heartwarming, but with enough cynicism to keep it from turning into sugary schlock, it kind of feels like a Bill Murray movie (and devotes about half a chapter to Groundhog Day). It's doubtful, however, that it will actually become a Bill Murray movie. Robert DeNiro's Tribeca Films and New Line recently paid nearly three million dollars for the screen rights to About a Boy. Meanwhile, Disney's Touchstone Pictures is busy with Hornby's first novel, High Fidelity. (John Cusack is adapting the screenplay and plans to star in it.) So anyone unfortunate enough to miss out on Hornby's hip writing can soon catch up on all the fuss at their local theater.

Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, paper, $12)

Ted Hughes was a magnificently accomplished poet, widely recognized in his native Britain for his poetry and translations of Ovid, and even serving as poet laureate under Queen Elizabeth for 14 years. In this country, however, he may as well have legally changed his name to "Sylvia Plath's Husband." This book, the only public comment on their relationship that Hughes ever made, won't do much to change that. But in speaking to her after 35 years of rumination, he gave the world a masterpiece.

Originally published just a few months before his death last year, the poems of Birthday Letters are carved from a rare genius and bathed in an emotional ocean. They follow the trajectory of Hughes and Plath's courtship, marriage and her suicide. Contrary to his American image, Hughes loved Plath with a form of anguish. Although he writes in plain imagery, his juxtaposition of human moments with natural symbols invests the former with a universal meaningfulness. This runs the gamut from the lyrical ("Caryatids I and II," about their college days) to the horrifying, as in "The Afterbirth," in which the placenta is compared to a hare hiding in the woods and then becomes the hare itself: "Unstoppably, like a burst artery,/The hare in the bowl screamed--"

Hughes also displays a deft sense of phrasing. In "The Chipmunk," this description of Plath leaps out: "You stayed/Alien to me as a window model,/American, airport-hopping superproduct." "A Short Film" begins evocatively: "It was not meant to hurt./It had been made for happy remembering/By people who were still too young/To have learned about memory." Significant also are "Isis" and "The Cast," in which he responds directly to Plath's signature poem "Daddy" and the horror it contains.

Indeed, Hughes seems to have written Birthday Letters with the vanishing point of his own death in mind. It reads like his final statement to the world before passing into some form of afterlife to be reunited with his beloved.

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