By Nick Hornby
406 pages. Riverhead. $25.95.
Nick Hornby's "Juliet, Naked" is a taste-based comedy that revolves around a reclusive American singer-songwriter from the 1980s. His name is Tucker Crowe, and he has inspired a small but disproportionately rabid band of followers. One such Crowologist is a middle-aged Englishman named Duncan. The novel begins with Duncan on a fact-finding expedition to Minneapolis, where he makes a pilgrimage to the bathroom that Crowe visited on a night that apparently changed his life.
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"If toilets could talk, eh?" Duncan remarks to Annie, his longtime girlfriend, who is most definitely not a Crowe fan. "Annie was glad this one couldn't," Hornby writes. "Duncan would have wanted to chat to it all night."
In earlier days, Duncan might have been the lone creep sifting through Bob Dylan's garbage in the middle of the night. Now, thanks to the Internet, he has soul mates ready to discuss all forms of Crowiana. It's Christmas in Croweland when an unplugged version of "Juliet," his most famous album, is suddenly made public. The acoustic "Juliet" consists of a set of old demo recordings and it quickly becomes known as "Naked," whereas the famous, fully produced version is "Dressed."
Now for some plot engineering from Hornby: He prompts Annie to quietly write her own small online review of "Naked" while Duncan concocts a far more self-important version. It's Annie who gets a reply. Tucker Crowe is moved by what she has to say about him because she shares his feeling of being adrift. After all, Annie calculates that she has wasted 15 years hanging around Duncan. And Tucker has been out of the public eye since that Minneapolis bathroom visit, in 1986.
So "Juliet, Naked" casually gives Annie something for which Duncan would kill. And it keeps Duncan in the dark about the identity of Annie's new Internet friend. Soon she and Tucker have become so enmeshed in their correspondence that he sends her a photo of himself, which she puts on her refrigerator. "Do I know him?" Duncan asks suspiciously of this unfamiliar new face. (Crowologists manage to take pictures of the wrong guy and mistake him for their hero.) Annie has to think before she answers. "Did Duncan know him?" she asks herself. "Well, yes and no. Mostly no, she decided."
In maneuvering and manipulating these characters, Hornby, the author of "High Fidelity," is on safe and inviting terrain. He knows all about the get-a-life pop-cultural obsessive who can devote himself to the study of someone else's career and declare himself a "world expert" on the subject.
Hornby doesn't characterize Tucker Crowe's music all that plausibly, but he can at least be funny about it. "Juliet" is supposed to be one of the great lost-love albums, akin to "Blood on the Tracks," even though Tucker has since figured out that the girlfriend about whom he wrote it wasn't all that interesting. And if it's hard to imagine this Dylan-Springsteen-Leonard Cohen amalgam, the book also wittily describes him as influenced by Dylan Thomas, Harold Pinter, Johnny Cash, Albert Camus and early Dolly Parton.
As the wheels of "Juliet, Naked" move Tucker, Annie and Duncan toward the inevitably amusing showdown, the book also develops a mournful side. Hornby knows that a onetime star who wakes up in his 50s to find himself with five children, a great indifference to his ex-wives and a reputation as a has-been is not going to be happy about it. Hornby also knows that the Duncans of this world must eventually wonder what it is they've been studying for all these years. "Maybe he'd spent too long translating something that had been written in English all along," Duncan finally acknowledges.
And Hornsby knows that Annie's dissatisfaction with Duncan is no joke. "I'm not going to fight for you," she tells him, once he takes the plot-friendly step of getting involved with another woman. "The whole point of you is that you're not the sort of person anyone fights over."
A more treacly writer than Hornby would engineer new happiness for each of these characters. But in its diffident way, "Juliet, Naked" is as candid as the unplugged music on "Naked." It knows its characters too well to lie about them. It understands that Tucker, for instance, has backed himself into an inescapable corner, to the point that his most natural companion is his youngest child, a 6-year-old boy, and that no career options are open to him. This book ends pricelessly with the Internet chat that is generated when Tucker finally makes his next move.
Duncan's chances for happiness may reside in the fact that he is also a self-styled HBO expert and thinks he knows a lot about "The Wire." Annie needs to escape the gloomy seaside village that Hornby calls Gooleness - though he does give it a perverse rock 'n' roll cachet. Every now and then schoolchildren are dragged off to a place like this, the book observes, either because their "parents had misremembered a vacation from their youth or because they had failed to spot the romanticism and poetic license in Bruce Springsteen's early albums." When Tucker comes to Gooleness, one local is excited that an '80s singer-songwriter is around. But he is saddened to learn that the big star isn't Billy Joel.