For Dr. Katie Carr, the narrator of Nick Hornby’s newest novel, How to Be Good, it’s a case of “be careful what you wish for.” A National Health Service doctor and avowed liberal living a fairly unremarkable life in North London, Carr has had it with her husband, David—who, in addition to having grown fat and inattentive, has quite literally become the title of his newspaper column, “The Angriest Man in Holloway.” While once David’s ranting and over-the-top cynicism were part of his charm, of late they’ve become intolerable. Katie complains that David’s novel-in-progress, The Green Keepers—”a satire about Britain’s post-Diana touchy-feely culture”—is “facetious, unkind, full of itself. Rather like David, or the David that has emerged over the last few years.”
But skepticism is the currency of the Carrs’ world. “There is a consensus in our particular postal district,” says Katie, “that people like Ginger Spice and Bill Clinton and Jeffrey Archer are beyond the pale, and if someone goes around sticking up for them then that consensus fails, and all is anarchy.” So when David undergoes a freak spiritual conversion that makes him the acting embodiment of all the armchair tenets of liberalism, and unswervingly nice, to boot, Katie’s life is turned on its head.
On a mission to right the world’s wrongs, David gives away his children’s toys and the family’s food, and insists that homelessness could be obliterated if everyone with a guest bedroom simply agreed to host a homeless person. (“What gives them the right to own half-empty houses when there are all these people out there in cardboard boxes?”) For Katie, whose moral calibrations have always begun from the point of view that as a doctor she is an inherently good person, David’s transformation puts her in the awkward position of having to take inventory of her own morality. It turns out it’s hard to argue with someone who has decided to act out against the inequality and hypocrisy of the world, without sounding like a tight-assed foot soldier of the Bush administration.
Under the pen of another writer, this could all be oppressive stuff indeed. But this is Nick Hornby. Which means David’s new guru is a man called DJ GoodNews, who developed his magical healing powers after a particularly good dose of E. It means that Katie’s inner struggle—and her wish for a less quacky guru of her own to provide easy answers—includes a lesson from The Empire Strikes Back. (“I wanted to be Luke Skywalker, off somewhere on my own, learning to be a Jedi. I wanted someone wise to teach me how to do the things I needed to know to survive the rest of my life.”) And it means the book is so razor-sharp and spot-on that you laugh out loud even as you feel secretly guilty because you’ve often scoffed at people who laugh out loud while reading. (And what gives you the right to laugh out loud while reading when there are so many people who have neither books nor laughter?)
The true success of How to Be Good is Katie herself. Hornby has taken on the risky task of creating a female narrator and has executed it flawlessly. As wife, mother, adulterer, doctor, sister, and contemporary middle-aged, middle-class conflicted liberal, Katie is believable, so much so that you don’t even give the male-writer-as-woman conceit a second thought. She’s sarcastic, selfish, strong-willed, but not in the way that some male authors allow their female narrators to be, with the poorly hidden hope that the writer will come off as enlightened. Readers of Hornby’s two previous novels, High Fidelity and About a Boy—which earned him badges of honor as a chronicler of the male psyche—will breathe sighs of relief and swell with warm fuzzy feelings of pride at his deft ability to evoke the female sensibility as well.
Katie is a deliciously likable person, largely because of her sense of humor—a characteristic of which David no longer possesses even a smidgen. When her daughter Molly cannot understand that not everyone in the world has a dishwasher, Katie panics, thinking that she has failed miserably in her children’s moral education. (“Now I see that she’s a stinking patrician Lady Bountiful,” Katie says of her eight-year-old daughter, “who in twenty years’ time will be sitting on the committee of some revolting charity ball in Warwickshire, moaning about refugees and giving her unwanted pashminas to her cleaning lady.”) She laments David’s transformation into a self-righteous pillar of no fun. “He is a model husband and father,” Katie reasons about the new David. “This particular model, however, is made of plastic and has his features molded into a permanent expression of concern and consideration. David has become a sort of happy-clappy right-on Christian version of Barbie’s Ken, except without Ken’s rugged good looks and contoured body.”
For all the charm and wit of How to Be Good, and for all it cunningly reveals about the choices we make, it suffers at points from an inability to escape itself. Katie waffles, wanting a divorce, wanting a reconciliation, wanting to live alone on her Jedi quest, wanting to hole up with her husband and children and try to live happily ever after while helping the indigent. With each plot development often comes a step backward, a wavering over an issue about which we’ve already heard more than enough. Then again, this seems exactly the point. Despite the self-help leanings of the title (which refers to a book David and GoodNews plan to write, then fittingly abandon), there’s no prescription between the novel’s covers. Hornby’s dilemma is paralyzing. If you are a kind person and donate money to charities and volunteer a few hours each week for a good cause, are you then entitled to laughter and meals out and even the odd purchase of a book or CD? Must you think, with each CD purchase, of just what or whom you could help with that $15, until there is no joy left in anything? How could we possibly live this way? How can we not?
With How to Be Good, Hornby set his ambitions higher than the pure wit of his other novels: He has written a funny book about our collective soul. While Katie Carr agonizes over how to be good, Nick Hornby seems—in literary terms, at least—to have it pretty well worked out.