You’re a good person, right? You love your spouse, pay your taxes, teach your kids right from wrong, maybe even worship on a weekly basis – all of that. You are certainly not an ax-murderer, child-molester, or dictator of a small Eastern European country currently contemplating an extended stay in the Netherlands.
But is that enough? What exactly does it mean when you say that you’re “good”? In the satirical tradition of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” Nick Hornby uses an outsize, preposterous notion to animate a story (what it might be like to live with someone who bears a suspicious resemblance to God) that ultimately shows how approximate and self-serving our ideas about “goodness” are. The result is a farce that manages to be breezily hilarious and thought-provoking at the same time.
How to Be Good is the story of an attractively ironic, right-thinking, warmhearted fortysomething doctor named Katie Carr, who, like most of us, thinks of herself as a good person. Okay, so she’s having an affair as the novel opens – but then, you would, too, if you were married to Mr. Carr. He’s a grumpy, slovenly, and ill-tempered newspaper columnist (“The Angriest Man in Holloway”) who stays home to work on his eternally unfinished satiric novel (“about Britain’s post-Diana touchy-feely culture”), while she spends excruciatingly long days at the clinic examining rectal boils and, more to the point, bringing home the bacon. But Katie’s (and our) ability to say who’s good and who’s bad begins to swivel wildly out of control one day when some bona fide Good-with-a-capital-G enters her life, forcing her, her family, and Hornby’s readers to rethink just what being “good” really means.
The form that honest-to-God Good takes in Hornby’s novel is – well, honest-to-God. One day, David Carr, suffering loudly from a bad back, goes to a “healer” named DJ GoodNews, hoping to expose him as a crank; when he comes back home, not only his vertebrae but his entire lousy personality have been cured. Before you know it, he’s being angelic to Katie; soon after, he’s giving their pocket money to street people, donating the kids’ toys to shelters, organizing a campaign to house the homeless in their neighborhood, and otherwise taking literally what that other “Good News” – i.e., the Gospels – so famously has to say. By thrusting a character who is merely good into a confrontation with one who is Good (if not, for all intents and purposes, God), Hornby forces you to think about the tense bourgeois minuet between self-interest and morality, about the difference between applauding and doing good works.
Some critics think this is a serious attempt to realistically portray modern-day marriage or children or yuppie angst. But the pleasure of Hornby’s amiably dyspeptic fiction lies in his sharp eye for the absurdities of contemporary culture, which places him squarely in the grumpy tradition of the Waughs. As you whiz through his new novel, you can’t help thinking that however much she may loathe the mean-spirited “old” David, a lot of Katie’s observations could easily have made it into “The Angriest Man in Holloway” without a great deal of editing. Nothing’s too incidental to escape her withering attention: romantic love (“the mad hunger for someone you don’t know very well”), the Church of England (“unhappy old ladies selling misshapen rock cakes and scratched Mantovani records”), and, of course, faith healers, whom she dismisses as the province of “the gullible, the credulous, the simple-minded … people who read Tolkien and Erich Von Daniken when they are old enough to drive cars.”
Inevitably, David’s newfound goodness – to say nothing of the presence of GoodNews, who’s taken up residence chez Carr – begins to wear Katie down. However much people in this novel talk about God, Hornby, in the end, comes down squarely on the side of the Devil – or, at least, on the side of mankind, with all its familiar but distinguishing flaws. “That’s how human beings spend their time, doing shitty things,” an exhausted Katie is forced to conclude after realizing that she can’t measure up to pure goodness. Hornby gives his heroine a zany monologue about The Empire Strikes Back at one point, but the sci-fi movie that How to Be Good ultimately reminds you of is that other, earlier classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with its message that what defines human beings is our flaws. I loved the fact that by the close of Hornby’s sly novel, the search for morality and meaning has moved from religion to art – from the Good Book to, thankfully, good books, which is what Katie’s indulging in again at the end of this good book. (Great music too.) You wanna know how to be good? Listen to music, read a book. Why? Because, as Katie says in parting, we’d be “no good without them.”
You’d have to be Jesus Christ to find something wonderful to say about Heather McGowan’s debut novel, Schooling. The best you’d be able to manage without breaking any major commandments is, “It’s a noble failure.” Catrine Evans is a 13-year-old American girl who, after the death of her mother, is packed off by her Welsh father to a British boarding school where she encounters not the splendid education she’d been promised but (duh!) troubled students and even more troubled teachers. I can only imagine that people have been talking so much about this book (well, publishing people, at any rate) because they figure anything this arty must be good – there’s lots of stream of consciousness (“Sunday, in the darkening, Gilbert’s teeth trailed as he stood”) and “exquisite” prose of the Stephen Tennant, black-lacquered-nails-and-Chinese-silk-dressing-gown sort (rain: “A conspiracy of droplets. A cabal of molecules”). There are also scenes cast as little plays, complete with stage instructions, in which characters from the book chat with, say, Hamlet and Ophelia and someone called Croconius, whom I take to be a sinister hybrid of a Shakespearian character and an early-springtime perennial.
None of this is pleasurable to read. “It’s a disconcerting knowing … and so dreary,” a schoolmaster opines about Catrine; it would be hard to think of a better epitaph for this book. McGowan, a playwright, is obviously a serious artist, and there are bits and pieces of Schooling that will make you shiver. But for all its stylistic razzmatazz, this first novel fails to apprehend what anyone who’s ever been on the teaching side of real-life schooling knows, which is that being brilliant isn’t the same as being good.
How to Be Good
By Nick Hornby
Riverhead; 320 pages; $24.95.
By Heather McGowan
Doubleday; 320 pages; $24.95.