A few years ago, when I watched Juno, was completely charmed by it and wrote a glowing review, one of my friends told me that the reason why she didn’t like the movie was that it kinda trivialized teenage pregnancy by treating it as comedy. I didn’t agree with her on that one, but I could see her point.
A few years later, I came across a show on MTV on pregnant teenagers. Its imagery and subject were clearly inspired by the film (the handwritten block letters, for instance), but the thing that came across most clearly was: these kids aren’t Juno. Juno was a sassy adult in a teenager’s body. These are really just kids with adult responsibilities and adult decisions to make. And most of the time, they’re not all that well-equipped to deal with it. As much as I still like that movie, I see her point a lot more now.
Nick Hornby’s Slam is midway between these two worlds. Sam, the narrator of this story, is a teenager who gets his girlfriend Alicia pregnant and now has to deal with the consequences. He understands these consequences better than most — he himself is the product of a teenage pregnancy, and his mom never fails to mention how she’s only three years older than David Beckham and already the mother of a sixteen year-old. His situation isn’t helped by the class difference between him and his girlfriend, something her parents are only too aware of.
What illuminates this tale is the quality of Hornby’s writing. Writing in first person has its pluses and minuses — while it is easier to visualize yourself as the narrator and write the story as it unfolds before your eyes, it is also easier to end up making the character simply a version of you. Creating a distinctive “voice” for a character isn’t straightforward, and with a first person narrative, there is no part of the book that can have any voice except that of the characters.
Sam sounded real to me, although he is not unlike anything Hornby has written. His characters are often a little selfish and undergo a maturation process through the course of his stories, and this one is no different. The fact that Sam really is just a kid makes him only slightly different from Rob Fleming (High Fidelity) or Will Freeman (About a Boy). Hornby’s knack for sly social commentary and ability to cut through the bullshit is also in evidence throughout. My favourite is a scene where Alicia’s mom makes a snobbish remark and Sam talks about how Alicia always says that she really is a good person but just blurts stuff out without thinking sometimes. If someone makes a snobbish remark without thinking, he wonders, doesn’t that mean they’re really snobs on the inside and their brain has to work constantly to prevent them from showing it?
I guess what really worked for me was the fact that Slam had a certain sense of balance. Something that a skater (skateboarder for un-cool people like us) like Sam would doubtless appreciate.