The Denver Post
August 19, 2001
By Dylan Foley
Special to The Denver Post
Nick Hornby's new novel, "How to Be Good" (Riverhead, 305 pages, $24.95), has caused a stir in the British press. Gone are the immature young men from his best sellers "High Fidelity" and "About a Boy." Tabloids in London are distressed by Hornby's audacity to write in the voice of a woman, Katie Carr, a doctor who is flummoxed by her angry husband's conversion to goodness.
"Way too much has been made about the differences between men and women," said Hornby, dismissing the sexual-role hoopla over his new novel. "I live with a woman and I am very rarely mystified by what she does on the grounds of gender."
Hornby came to the U.S. from London recently for an arduous two-week tour. Though Hornby's American readings have attracted audiences as big as 600 people, he has remained as unflappable as the elementary schoolteacher he once was. In a chic Manhattan hotel lounge, the 43-year-old Hornby discussed his book and how it was influenced by his young son's autism.
"Ever since my son was diagnosed, I've been introduced to people I didn't know existed," said Hornby of the people who teach his 7-year-old son, Danny. "They are the most terrifyingly devoted, good people. It is like you cross the line into the place of pure goodness." Though Hornby routinely gave money to charity, he felt like he was on "a moral backfoot."
His new acquaintances provoked Hornby to examine issues of faith and self-doubt. "I was interested in a person who felt secure that they were a good person, and to have that conviction rocked. I know I wanted to get this in the context of a marriage."
Katie, the heroine of "How to Be Good," is an overworked public health service doctor in North London. Her husband, David, is a frustrated novelist who vents against everything in a newspaper column titled "The Angriest Man in Holloway." Their dying marriage is rocked by Katie's adultery at the beginning of the novel, but David's conversion at the hands of the murky DJ GoodNews is more shattering for Katie and their two children.
"David reminds me of a lot of men," explained Hornby. "In the novel, I knew that I wanted a partner in this marriage to go from being cynical to intemperately good. It seemed to me more likely that it would be a guy that would be brutally disappointed with his life."
Hornby has created a novel that is both mercilessly funny and poignant. Katie is a fully developed character, tortured by the fact she can't cure many of her patients and guilty that she doesn't spend enough time with her two small children. David invites his guru GoodNews, who received his healing powers by consuming too much Ecstasy, to live with his family. First, David gives away a computer and many of the children's toys. "I was pinned back by the moral force of David's argument," said Katie of the computer, "but now I can see that he has gone mad, that he wants to humiliate us all. How could I have forgotten that this is what always happens with zealots? They always go too far."
But it is just the beginning - David and GoodNews draw up plans to save the world. Their first step is to put homeless (and possibly dangerous) teenagers in the spare bedrooms of all the houses on their upper-middle-class block. Civil war breaks out in the Carr household.
Along with the vivid prose that sets up the ironic events of the book, Hornby forces the reader to ask hard questions - how can we go in our middle-class lives when there is so much suffering around the world, or even down the block?
"I'd wanted to get people to side with Kate against sanctimony," said Hornby, "but on the other hand, not having her have answers to why she isn't doing this stuff." David's sanctimony, he says, at times tips into moral sadism. Katie finds herself missing the old, angry David. The creation of the GoodNews character was also related to Hornby's son. "When I started talking publicly about my son's condition," said Hornby, "every now and then I would get these weird letters from people: "Rub turnip juice on his head and stand him upside-down in a bucket of water. Come see me and I will cure him.' There is a lot of weird therapy stuff out there, and you are haunted by the idea that one of these people might have something. I liked the idea that someone unpromising had the gift. Katie, with her education and her desire, is denied any gift."
Last year, Hornby edited the successful short-story collection "Speaking With the Angel." The book contained original work by Helen Fielding, Roddy Doyle and Dave Eggers, all to raise money for two schools for autistic children, one in London and one in New York. Was this Hornby's attempt to be good? "It would be such a feeble attempt. It was so easy and so fun," he said with a laugh. "It cost me almost nothing. I only had to write my own story and my introduction."
Though the 43-year-old Katie is much more mature than the 30-ish boys in Hornby's two other novels, she has the same wry commentary on herself and those around her, like Rob in "High Fidelity." Whether it is the deranged minister who is "one wafer short of a communion" or her befuddled patient, Barmy Brian, Katie's beautiful wit keeps the momentum of the novel going. Katie is helpless in the face of her husband's oppressive goodness, until she pulls a subtle manipulation, hamstringing David's holiness and possibly saving the marriage.
The ending, however, is hardly clear. Katie and David have a lot of work to do to keep their family together. "I knew that I wanted the ending to be a bit tentative and a bit bleak," said Hornby. "You know, like the marriage is hanging on by a thread."
Dylan Foley is a book critic from Brooklyn, N.Y.