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Stereotypes come east when boys will be boys; About A Boy. By Nick Hornby (Gollancz, pounds 15.99).

Football fans, thirtysomethings whose main enjoyment comes from compiling lists of best films or pop songs - Nick Hornby has a knack for pinpointing the characteristic stereotypes of modern Britain.

In this, his second novel, he concentrates on two more, in alternate chapters.

The first is the single mother, in this case Fiona, mother of Marcus and recently moved to London from Cambridge. Although it is Marcus who is the principal subject of these chapters, single parenthood and its loneliness and despair forms the catalyst for much of the action.

Fiona and Marcus's father have recently split up. He has a new girlfriend; she has Marcus and a job as a music therapist.

She is also trying new relationships without much luck. As the book opens Marcus is asking what they will do with the third take-away pizza they have ordered, now his mother and Roger, her latest, have exchanged heated words behind a closed door and he has stormed out of the house.

Coming to terms with such transient relationships is as difficult for Marcus as it is for his mother.

"He'd once shared a toilet with Roger, when they were both busting for a pee after a car journey. You'd think that if you'd peed with someone you ought to keep in touch with them somehow." Perfectly understandable reflections from Marcus and perfectly phrased speech patterns from Hornby.

The second stereotype is the most original and perceptive, however. This is Will, in his mid-30s, driving a GTi, enjoying a full and frivolous social life, and luxuriating in the shallowness of it all.

We meet him doing a "how cool are you?" test in a glossy men's magazine - in themselves such mags are perfect icons of 90s Britain - and revelling in the verdict: "He was dry ice! He was Frosty the Snowman! He would die of hypothermia!"

Will is a false construction, as befits fiction, because he has no ties: no family; no need to work (his father wrote a dreadful Christmas song, Santa's Super Sleigh, way back when and it has kept Will in pounds 40,000 of royalties a year - Will notes with horror how he hears this song in a shopping precinct or on the radio earlier and earlier each year); no relationship that gets messy because he always ends it before that happens.

But Will epitomises a certain modern Britlad - he floats free in a consumerist paradise of CDs and videos, seeking superficial pleasures in clubs and bars, with trendily designer-labelled women as shallow as himself. In fact he luxuriates in this life ofskimmed surfaces.

But he's not getting any younger and a chance encounter with a youngish single mother introduces him to a new kind of woman - one desperate to please. So he creates a fictitious son in order to join a single parents' group and, voila!, Will meets Marcus,though never gets together with his mother.

They change each other in the course of the book - Will helping the untrendy, bullied Marcus with some lessons in the language of cool; Marcus dragging Will into the complexities of a messier life, a life with some depth, and therefore some meaning.

All the specific references to popular culture we have come to expect from Nick Hornby are here. The death of Kurt Cobain figures as a central event in the story, although Marcus is originally led to believe by a schoolgirl that the Christ-like figure onher sweatshirt is Kirk O'Bane, a Manchester United player who had scored five goals the previous weekend.

Marcus and his mum are given to enjoying Joni Mitchell songs round the piano and spontaneous singing is encouraged by Fiona, a short-coming for Marcus when it comes to fitting in at school.

Will and Marcus watch Countdown together at Will's flat, go to Pizza Express and the occasional Arsenal match.

About A Boy is a quick, easy and highly enjoyable read, and slips a few profound insights in with the entertainment. Hornby handles the crucial emotional moments cleverly through the filter of Will's or Marcus's perceptions of them, though both characters are guilty of showing sudden uncharacteristic moments of selnderstanding.
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Apr 4, 1998
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