Better Read Than Never: HOW TO BE GOOD

Twice during our China sojourn we have vacationed in Thailand. We went not primarily for the sun (though warmth in the midst of a northeastern winter was good), nor for the sights and the great food (both gorgeous and easily found), and certainly not for the sexploitation of Bangkok (not goin’ there). My wife and I, and even our almost-equally word-nerdy son, look forward more than anything to the books. In Chiangmai, a northern city we first visited in 2010 for sun and historical ruins and support for elephant preservation, we found several shockingly good English bookstores. This past February, we lugged about 40 pounds of books out of there, eventually shipping them home to Dalian.

I was a Nick Hornby fan, based on the reading of only one novel, High Fidelity. Poring through numberless shelves of the kind of books (in the kind of shop) we can only dream of in our middling Chinese city, I was arrested under the H by a new Hornby title: How To Be Good. It duly made its way into our suddenly heavy suitcases, came with us to the southern beaches of Krabi, helped lengthen my arms on the way to Hong Kong, and there made its way into a sturdy cardboard box for shipping. (The post offices of Hong Kong are among its many pleasures: efficient, courteous, English-speaking.) There were unsurprising but novel problems on the China Post end, but we did eventually get our parcel, and Mr. Hornby was on top. I haven’t seen the movie versions of High Fidelity or About a Boy, and I fear the rumour that Good has Julia Roberts in it. (Movies do grow where his books are planted, leading to criticism that he’s a better screenwriter than novellist. Don’t believe it.) I was not disappointed: How To Be Good (2001) is a fascinating, funny and oddly wise novel, and I’m more deeply impressed than ever with Hornby. “Better read than never,” indeed.

It’s a brave piece of writing, in many ways, the most obvious being that it centres on exactly what its brown-bag title suggests. It is an examination of the nature of goodness, especially in a modern British context. It asks the literary question, What would happen if a smart, cynical, chronically frustrated contemporary male suddenly decided to become a saint? Hornby’s second bit of story-telling courage comes in having the story told in the voice of the would-be saint’s wife, the thoroughly modern and cripplingly stressed-out mother of his two children. A third element of daring may not be that at all; from my limited reading, the combination of serious meditations on human life, along with hilarious descriptions and desperately funny internal monologues, may be simply what Hornby does.

Katie Carr is a doctor in general practice. She has been married to David, as the novel opens, for twenty years, and they have two children, Tom (10) and Molly (8). As a narrative voice, Katie is perceptive, generous, and self-aware, and witty in a way that the British seem to have copyrighted. She is struggling mightily with the demands and inanities of her work, and with the feeling that she has lost much of the depth and brightness of her life. She is having a crisis, but it is such an unusual, detailed and cleverly related one that it doesn’t feel at all like a story we’ve read before. David is the self-proclaimed “Angriest Man in Holloway”, the title of a column he writes in their privileged London district’s newspaper, and a failing novelist. Their relationship is cool and functional, except when it is bitter and conversationally cutthroat: “You don’t get conversations like this when things are going well….Phone calls like ours only happen when you’ve spent several years hurting and being hurt, until every word you utter or hear becomes coded and loaded, as complicated and full of subtext as a bleak and brilliant play….It takes years of miserable ingenuity to get to this place.”

“This place” results from a mobile phone call from Katie, in a car park in Leeds, to remind David of a household matter. “I retrace the conversation in my head, in as much detail as I can manage, trying to work out how we’d got from there (Molly’s dental appointment) to here (imminent divorce) in three minutes.” David’s most important priority, as it happens, is to make sure that, in the official debating score, it is clear that it was her that brought up the idea. This is one sick marriage. Shockingly, to Katie “I am a good person, right?” Carr, it involves an affair for her, even more seething resentment from David, a failed attempt to share her pain with a self-absorbed girlfriend and an utterly unsympathetic brother, and an existential loneliness that is relieved (for the reader, at least) only by her wit and her furious attempts to remain calm, functional, and outwardly sane. These are her goals, yet she imagines more. “You see, what I really want, and what I’m getting with [her lover Stephen], is the opportunity to rebuild myself from scratch. David’s picture of me is complete now, and I’m pretty sure neither of us likes it much; I want to rip the page out and start again on a fresh sheet, just like I used to do when I was a kid and had messed a drawing up….I just want [Stephen’s] rapt attention when I tell him that my favourite book is Middlemarch, and I just want that feeling, the feeling I get with him, of having not gone wrong yet.”

Well: the kids can feel the tension. The truth must come out, and what will happen when it does? How will Katie’s unhappiness and her desire for a new start sit with David, a volcano of intelligent scorn, well-rehearsed resentment – toward the theatre, sentimentality of all kinds, and Katie’s greater career success – and bubbling anger. “It’s true that I don’t want David to be David anymore….I just don’t want that voice, that tone, that permanent scowl. I want him to like me, in fact. Is that really too much to ask of a husband?” Her sarcasm and intelligence duel with her pain and a childlike longing for a love that seems impossible to recover. Then David’s back goes out, an old problem for which traditional medicine (that is, his superwoman wife) has no real help, while “alternative” therapies are to David as pathetic and ridiculous as marriage counselling would be. One day, though, mainly to spite “goody two-shoes Dr. Katie Carr”, he takes his aching back, on a bitter whim, to an odd little man in a dingy apartment above a shop. He comes home limber and triumphant. This is the beginning of a remarkable (and yes, maybe pretty unlikely) transformation, a healing, of David. And then Katie’s life becomes even more complicated.

“If, a few weeks ago, someone had offered to grant me one wish…, I’d have mumbled something about cures for cancer or world peace….Secretly I’d have wanted the genie to say, ‘No, you’re a doctor, you do enough for the world already, what with the rectal boils and everything. Choose something for yourself.’ And I would have said,… ‘I would like David not to be angry anymore. I would like him to recognize that his life is OK….I would like all his bile gone…’” Katie finds, to her astonishment and confusion, that after further visits to the mysterious “DJ GoodNews”, not only is his back trouble gone, as well as Molly’s stubborn eczema, but David is also calm –even about her infidelity — apologetic, unaccountably kind, and no longer able to write his “Angriest Man” column. He is looking at his life differently. We are about one-fifth of our way through the book, we don’t have any real idea of where this can go from here, and neither does Katie Carr. But her problem is solved, right? What is funny, funky and distinctive about How To Be Good is that David’s desire to do just that throws the family, the neighbourhood, and their fragile relationship for loop after dizzying loop.

It’s a great ride, even though (and because!) we can’t predict where the novel is headed. As I hope you can see from the passages above, we are in the hands of a clever, yearning narrator, a brilliant observer of a life she feels increasingly unable to understand. Her changing relationships – with “Barmy Brian”, for example, a lonely hypochondriac who is the bane of her existence; or Stephen, her lover, or Becca, her lovelorn colleague; or a long and unresolved and painfully slow flirtation with the novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which she wants to finish but doubts she ever will (yeah, I haven’t read it, either, sposta be good!); or surly Tom or idealistic Molly or, above all, David – all these human connections turn in surprising and compelling ways. Her reactions to David’s quest for goodness are bizarre yet perfectly understandable, and often bitingly funny, as he becomes “every liberal’s worst nightmare”: someone who doesn’t just talk about social justice but tries to act upon it.

While How To Be Good was bouncing around in my brain, while a second reading was reminding me of Hornby’s brilliant and humane observations, I stumbled on a file I’d created years ago, after reading High Fidelity. I had typed several passages that I found especially wise or knowing; I wrote [ouch!] after one of them. How To Be Good is full of such monologues, not to mention dazzling, hilarious conversations that any playwright would love to claim. Often, a frantic Katie, trying to fathom her stormy life, repeating I can do this, I can do this to herself, spins a funny, self-deprecating stream of intelligent consciousness that, by the end, leaves the reader nodding or exclaiming at a perfect view of an all-too-familiar kind of thinking. I recognized myself, friends, a wife or two and many situations in Dr. Carr’s story, and felt that I knew and liked and occasionally wanted to shout at this appealing, trying-so-hard woman.

Forced to seek a weakness in the book, I’d point to the basic unlikelihood of David’s transformation. We don’t like to believe in this, anymore, nor does Katie: “I wanted David’s anger to vanish [but] only after years and years in therapy.” It’s a classic novelistic “What if?”, and Hornby carries if off even better upon a second reading. I’m forced to admit that, hey, St. Paul’s drinking buddies probably thought he was nuts after his rapid turnaround on the road to Damascus, not to mention a bit of a killjoy. Besides, it’s Katie’s book, and it is one of its virtues, or maybe necessities, that we never quite know David as well as we know his long-suffering wife. He doesn’t know quite what he’s doing, either; he’s making it up as he goes along, but he’s determined to GO. And we’re left asking ourselves, with Hornby, what we are to make of goodness in a world where it just seems, you know, a bit old-fashioned.

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