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Nick Hornby's third novel pursues goodness till it hurts

"How To Be Good" sounds like a long day at Sunday School in itchy wool pants and tight shoes. But it's far more uncomfortable than that. This latest comic novel from Nick Hornby hits the funny bone but bruises the conscience.

All fiction is implicity about morality, but with "How To Be Good," Hornby draws the curtain aside and drags our ethics onto center stage where we can watch them squirm.

His hapless heroine is Katie Carr, a hard-working doctor, a loving mother, and a loyal wife. The novel opens when she calls her husband after a one-night stand to announce that she doesn't want to be married to him anymore. Of course, that's not a good thing to do. Katie knows she shouldn't sleep with strangers or end a 24-year marriage over the phone. After all, as she reminds us with increasing anxiety, she's a good person. She helps people, for goodness sake.

But she's had it with her marriage. Her husband, David, is a bitter, acerbic partner. He writes a column called "The Angriest Man in North London." A recent installment complained about old people who travel by bus.

Once, he seemed witty and loving, but now the regrets and offenses have calcified between them, and they can't touch each other. They get along so poorly at this point that they can't even agree to separate.

This grim stalemate is finally disrupted when David visits a spiritual healer to cure his back pain. (He goes only to offend his wife's professional sensibilities.) When he returns cured, he takes their daughter, who's suffered with eczema for years. She, too, returns completely healed.

Katie snorts at this apparent success. It's an affront to her medical skill. But it's much, much more to her husband. In a wrenching character shift that makes Katie believe he must be mentally ill, David suddenly dedicates his life to being good. All the time. In every way. "Who could live with that?" the novel asks. He won't rest till he's enlisted Katie, their two children, and all their unnerved neighbors. He begins to speak with "the slow, over-confident patience of a recently created angel." At first, Katie is giddy with excitement. "Who is this man," she wonders, "who talks to his own wife in his own bed in phrases from 'Thought for the Day'? Maybe this is the most vicious and manipulative thing David has done yet."

David becomes "a sort of happy-clappy right-on Christian version of Barbie's Ken." He abandons his Angry Man column. He begins to give away their money, possessions, and food to the homeless. "This is so unlike him that it gives me the creeps," she thinks. Suddenly, "we are the ideal nuclear family. We eat together, we play improving board games instead of watching television, we smile a lot. I feel that at any moment, I may kill somebody."

Finally, David invites his young spiritual healer to live with them. His name is DJ GoodNews, and he wears turtle earings pierced through both eyebrows. Katie dislikes him immediately, but her husband throws himself into lengthy discussions about how to improve the world.

Hornby has a wonderful sense of the comic value of rage. He allows the absurdity of this plot to grow exponentially, churning up trouble for Katie and her two children along the way. Deep down, she understands her husband's lonely desire for goodness - for moral clarity in a complex world, but at the same time, she sees the lunacy and self-righteousness of his crusade.

There's something adolescent about this novel's raging debate, a reminder of that time when hypocrisy was the cardinal sin and we hadn't yet constructed the rationales that allow us to live happily amid such galling inequity. How can we go out to dinner when 20,000 children starve to death every day? Do we need a DVD player when millions don't have clean water? David won't let these questions rest, and Katie can find no arguments to use against his appeals or her own soul-ache, except the unfortunate fact that normal life as we've defined it requires ignoring most of the world's suffering while we comfort ourselves with a few self-satisfied gestures.

"Cynicism is our shared common language," she notes with a sigh, "the Esperanto that actually caught on."

Despite some great moments of brutal, over-the-top comedy, there's a tenderness that runs through this novel - an anguished concern about the calamity of moral desire in a world whose needs exceed everything we can give it.

What's most troubling, though, is the story's implication that the struggle to be always good is somehow incompatible with intelligence or even a sense of humor. The stark choice here is between ignorance of the world or tyrannical idealism. When lightning flashes over these characters, it illuminates only the harrowing darkness around them.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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