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Trick or Treat

HOW TO BE GOOD A Novel By Nick Hornby; Riverhead: 320 pp., $24.95

July 22, 2001|JONATHAN LEVI | Jonathan Levi is a contributing writer to Book Review

Katie Carr, M.D., heroine of Englishman Nick Hornby's ambitious new novel "How to Be Good," is only the latest human in a line stretching back to Aristotle to ask the question: How to be good? As a National Health Service general practitioner with 1,200 patients on her roster, slaving away at a noble job for ignoble pay, Katie ought to be the poster girl for Goodness. But our Eve has done something wrong. She has tasted forbidden fruit, specifically a social worker named Stephen.

For Katie has two children and is married to David, a would-be novelist, who makes his tiny contribution to the Carr household income by writing brochures and a column in the local paper titled "The Angriest Man in Holloway."

"The last one I could bear to read," confesses Katie, "was a diatribe against old people who traveled on buses: Why did they never have their money ready? Why wouldn't they use the seats set aside for them at the front of the bus? Why did they insist on standing up ten minutes before their stop, thus obliging them to fall over frequently in an alarming and undignified fashion? You get the picture, anyway." And you, reader, get the picture of why Katie might have momentarily strayed from the Good.

Yet Katie's desire for adultery is simpler than sex and anger. "You see, what I really want, and what I'm getting with Stephen, is the opportunity to rebuild myself from scratch. David's picture of me is complete now, and I'm pretty sure neither of us likes it much; I want to rip the page out and start again on a fresh sheet, just like I used to do when I was a kid and messed a drawing up."

While Katie is busily debating the moral pros and cons of her infidelity, David, just to spite her faith in rationality and medicine, seeks the help of a faith healer to cure his aching back. And, mirabile dictu, the healer, DJ Goodnews, not only cures David but rids their daughter Molly of eczema and even relieves one of Katie's intractable patients of her infinite pains and woes. What gave you your power? Katie asks Goodnews during a rare moment when she gets him alone. "Drugs," he answers simply, specifically Ecstasy. "I was doing loads, and it was all that 'I love you you're my friend' stuff in clubs every Friday night, and ... I'm like one of those American comic book guys. Spiderman and all them. It changed my molecular makeup. Gave me superpowers."

Goodnews also cures David of his anger. It is David, to Katie's horror, who rips his own page out and starts fresh on a new sheet, becoming an unrecognizable Samaritan, giving away extras to the poor--their son Tom's computer, the Sunday roast--and then urging their neighbors to open spare bedrooms to homeless children. After the first theft by one of the homeless beneficiaries, the tide seems to turn back toward common sense as the concerned neighbors gather to protest David's ideal community.

The philistine in the crowd, Mike, a carpenter, voices the uncomfortable: "I don't live in a [expletive deleted] community. I live in my house. With my things. And I want to keep them." Yet Locke on "Property Rights" never read as well as Rousseau on the Edenic community, and the neighborhood, to Katie's increasing consternation, solidifies around the increasingly Christ-like David.

The real problem, however, in the eyes of Katie is not whether David is right or wrong but that he has become such a sanctimonious bore. And that, perhaps, is the problem with the novel. Hornby displayed his sprightly prose to wonderful effect in his previous "Fever Pitch" and "About a Boy." So why then does "How to Be Good" read drier than "Dear Abby.

If there is any moral to be gleaned from "How to Be Good," it is that a concern for individuals--love, if you will--matters more than a concern for the Good, whatever that may be. And yet the novelist has ignored his own teachings. Although they live in the more plebian simpatico environs of Holloway, Katie and David are slouching toward Brooknerland and boredom as the novel progresses.

Even the bermensch DJ Goodnews proves to be neither ber nor mensch. And although the book is set up initially as a novel, Katie's search for the Good becomes more treatise than treat. Three cheers for Nick Hornby taking on Nicomachea. But though the unexamined life may not be worth living, too much examination may not be worth reading.

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