Christianity again

Carl Remick carlremick at
Fri May 25 15:15:55 PDT 2001

[From last week's London Sunday Times, John Carey's review of How To Be Good by Nick Hornby]

Tackling the big issue

Nick Hornby has always given the impression of being a writer whose brain is struggling to free itself from other parts of his personality, such as his obsession with football and his attachment to pop music. Now it has succeeded. How to Be Good is a novel of ideas. More, it is a bitingly clever novel of ideas, on a subject almost nobody else has written about.

The question it confronts is -- how would a totally good person, a saint or a Jesus Christ clone, get on in the modern world? So far as I know the only other novelist to tackle this problem is Dostoevsky. In 1867 he was walking round an art gallery in Basel when he stopped, thunderstruck, in front of Holbein's painting of Christ being taken down from the cross. After staring at it for 20 minutes he went away and wrote his novel The Idiot, about an epileptic Russian prince who is Christian perfection personified. Hornby may not spring to mind as the most obvious Dostoevsky lookalike, but his new novel seems to me well able to stand comparison with the great Russian's rambling fable. It is shorter, funnier, just as sharp in its human observation, and more realistic.

It is set in present-day north London. Katie and David Carr met at a college dance in 1976; they have been married for 20-odd years and have two school-age children, Tom and Molly. Katie is the breadwinner -- a GP in a local group practice, frantically trying to balance the demands of work and home. David is quite like Rob in Hornby's novel High Fidelity, but 10 years older -- a snarling, envious, parasitic, foul-mouthed failure, whose only pretence at gainful employment is writing a satirical column ("The Angriest Man in Holloway") in the local paper.

It is David's backache that changes everything. It drives him to visit a faith healer -- a skinny, semi-articulate dropout, with pierced eyebrows and personal-hygiene problems, styled D J GoodNews, who lives over a minicab office in Finsbury Park. Contrary to appearances, GoodNews has real powers.

When he lays his hands on people, light bulbs glow brighter and the room fills with warmth. Also, the sufferers are cured. In David's case it is not just his back that benefits, but his personality, too. He becomes, like GoodNews, a committed philanthropist, quietly spoken, apologetic but fearless. The effect on family life is devastating. The children's hoard of electronic playthings is distributed to the poor. Tom's computer goes to a battered women's refuge in Kentish Town. Before Katie and the children can lay a fork on it, Sunday lunch is packed into containers to be carried out to the homeless. Soon GoodNews moves into the Carrs' spare room, and the campaign widens.

David and GoodNews estimate that there are 40 unused bedrooms in the street, and they throw a neighbourhood party at which everyone is urged to take in a homeless child. Several comply, and lives are changed. Encouraged, the two altruists set about planning to persuade people to give away everything they earn over and above the national average wage.

David and GoodNews are not Christians. They have no religious beliefs. What impels them is simply the conviction that poverty should be eliminated, wealth evenly distributed, and consumerism brought within sensible bounds -- everything, in fact, that decent Guardian-reading liberals like the Carrs and their friends have always believed, but never for a moment dreamt of doing anything about. It is Katie who drifts briefly towards Christianity -- or at any rate to morning service at her flyblown local church -- to get away from her infuriatingly polite and sanctimonious spouse. But she finds that the vicar, a middle-aged woman who embarrasses her tiny flock by sprinkling her sermons with snatches of pop-songs, hates her job and has lost her faith.

Thrown back on her own resources, Katie unearths opinions in herself that she had never suspected -- that she does not care a damn about the homeless, that she believes people have a right to be selfish if they want to, and that a life lived without hatred is no life at all.

For the unregenerate reader these beliefs have a guilty but undeniable appeal when compared with David's and GoodNews's relentless benignity. The behaviour of the Carr children also nudges us towards the devil's party.

Molly becomes a sickening little prig, responding with ardour to each new sacrifice her high-minded mentors demand of her. In the Middle Ages she would clearly have blossomed into the kind of saint who kissed lepers' sores. Tom retreats into glowering misanthropy, starts stealing from other boys at school, and smashes his fist into the face of the feeble-witted, disadvantaged child whom his father has selected to be his special friend.

Hornby's masterstroke is to make Katie the narrator. True, she seems too like Hornby to be a wholly convincing woman, and his bid to graft accredited female attributes onto her -- muddle, panic, bursting into tears when treated kindly -- seems a bit forced. But these are minor matters compared to the strength which her scepticism, indignation and solid, down-to-earth selfishness lend to the novel's structure. Her funny, spunky monologues win us over, even though she and we know that David and GoodNews are right. She knows that nobody needs dishwashers or second cars, that the Third-World debt is killing millions, that our shrinking, polluted planet is hurt beyond recovery, that nobody believes in the future any more, that cynicism is our shared common language, and that a standing order with Shelter is no way of coping with these terminal ills. But she also knows that the poor, when you actually contact them, as she has to day by day in her surgery, tend to be smelly, ungrateful, dishonest, coarse, ignorant and very unpleasant to share your home with. So she pits herself resolutely against her husband's goodness.

This is all a long way from the warm-hearted multicultural soup of Hornby's last novel, About a Boy, generous and sustaining though that was. Here, for the first time, he is writing about something more alarming than the masculinity problems of young-/middle-aged men. But the bleak subject never sours the book. Unlike many comic writers he does not hate humanity, and you keep glimpsing a kind of love beyond the ridicule. One of Katie's recidivist patients, a festering bundle of imaginary ailments known as Barmy Brian, comes to her surgery when his mother dies to inquire about how to turn raw food into comestibles, the difference between bacon and ham, and other mysteries from which his mother has shielded him throughout boyhood and adult life. A ruthless commentary on maleness, maternity and general human helplessness, it leaves you not knowing whether to laugh or cry, and the book would be worth buying for this page alone. But there are many other passages in this profound, worrying, hilarious, sophisticated, compulsive novel about which that could be said.



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