Why isn’t a standing order with Shelter enough?

How to be Good
by Nick Hornby

I was feeling a bit ill and not quite up to stretching my brains around the Asimov novel I’m in the middle of reading, so I picked this off the TBR. Somehow that sounds as if I’m disparaging it. I’m not. I really like Hornby. And he is easier to read than Asimov, it turns out.

But how did I like this Hornby novel? Well, it was better than Slam, which is a good start, and generally pretty funny and intelligent, but I do have some bones to pick. And I can’t tell if I’m mostly annoyed with the storyline or with the way it’s told. Some of each, probably.

Kate is struggling with her marriage. It’s not so much that the sex has become mechanical, or that she has started an affair, or that her husband David is constantly in a heightened, bordering-on-caricature, state of anger…but something is clearly wrong and only apathy has prevented the inevitable divorce. Then, out of the blue, David visits a faith healer (largely to spite Kate, who is a GP) and suddenly he is changed beyond all recognition, his whole aim in life is to do and be good, and he’s damn well going to make the whole family join him.

A certain suspension of disbelief is required for this story that, frankly, I didn’t quite manage. Despite the faith healer, DJ GoodNews, being unappealing and having no religion and no oratory skill, he is successful at healing doubters and believers alike. David changes from comically angry and judgemental to painfully earnest do-gooder with difficulty having any other topic of conversation than, well, doing good:
“[David’s] relentless quest for the gag in everything used to drive me potty…some elaborate and usually nasty witticism would come darting out of his mouth…and I would either laugh, or, more often, walk out of the room, slamming the door on the way. But every now and again – say, five per cent of the time – something would hit me right on the end of my funny bone…So now I very rarely walk out of the room and slam the door; on the other hand, I never laugh. And I would have to say that as a consequence I am slightly worse off.”

Kate is, for the most part, pretty believable. As the narrator, it is her head we are inside and her perspective we see. She believes herself to be a good person because she is a doctor, and that the number of pus-filled sores she tends to each day outweighs minor aberrations such as having an affair. She is initially outraged that her husband’s mid-life crisis appears to require her and her children to give up some of their middle class creature comforts but she tries to support David and even begins to see the point of his efforts.

There are brilliantly quotable lines on almost every page but I think this gives a particularly good flavour:
“What is the difference between offering spare bedrooms to evacuees in 1940 and offering spare bedrooms to the homeless in 2000?…do we have a moral right to keep a spare bedroom as a junk room, or a music room, or for overnight guests who never come, when it is February and freezing and wet and there are people on the pavements? Why isn’t a standing order with Shelter enough?…I wish David and GoodNews were interested in starting up an Internet company so that they could make millions of pounds to spend on Page Three girls and swimming pools and cocaine and designer suits. People would understand that. That wouldn’t upset the neighbours.”

The story of a failing marriage is told poignantly and well. It was achingly sad to read about Kate being happy to share a bed with David because they have learned to fit together, but at the same time growing to hate him. And the social issues that David and GoodNews touch on are real ones that people should care about and want to do something about.

But this is a gentle comedy, not a hard-hitting one, so of course it implies that Kate was right to not bother in the first place and David is made to look stupid for having tried. Which is a shame. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I think it’s easy to poke fun at middle-class left-leaning liberals. The tone of the book, for all its humour, is actually very bleak – there is no point, no hope. Which is depressing. And not true. There are good people out there who didn’t need a spiritual conversion to make them good and don’t make themselves ridiculous by doing good deeds. Guess I’m just an optimist.

As you can tell, the story does raise interesting questions about faith, “goodness”, charity and family, though it explores them from a fairly limited Christian perspective. There were some irritating non-sequiturs when Hornby switched between David being a hardnosed rational to a science-hating artist. And a GP who doesn’t know basic first aid and includes homeopathy in a list of “proper” treatments preferable to faith healing? Both equally terrifying though sadly the latter is at least believable.

So where does that leave me? I thoroughly enjoyed the read but it also frustrated me and continues to now as I mull it over. Is that a sign of good writing? Perhaps.

First published 2001 by Penguin Books.

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