f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Moral Books Day 2 – Be Good Now – Piety and <i>How to Be Good</i>

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Moral Books Day 2 – Be Good Now – Piety and How to Be Good

In a lot of ways I am not an ideal reader. Perhaps preeminent among the reasons is that my retention is incredibly low. I read fast; I understand what I read; I can respond to it either on a test or in a written review; I forget what I read.

Snippets stay with me of the things I really enjoyed, but I’m not one to remember large chunks or memorize passages.

Which brings me to our book for today—Nick Hornby’s How to Be Good.

Eating Crow, what with its looking through the past and focus on trying to do the right thing, seemed to be a combination of two Hornby books—High Fidelity and this one. Eating Crow, I finished the other night. It’s fresh in my mind. How to Be Good, well I can’t remember exactly when I read it and that’s emblematic of the problem I’m going to have today. Regardless, I’m pushing on. Just know that overall, the book is interesting and worth reading. Even if I’ve only general vagaries to say about it.

Mini plot recap: Told from the perspective of Katie, wife, mother, and doctor. This is the story of how a marriage about to fall apart—Katie has begun an affair—turns bizarre when the husband (who writes a newspaper column called “The Angriest Man in Holloway”) reexamines his life and, under the guidance of a guru, decides to become good.

“Good” in the case means not just talking, but action. You know how political candidates (not naming names) insist they’re going to solve crises in education, poverty, environment, etc? Well, David Carr tries to do just that, at least in his own little corner of the world.

The twist is that Katie, who’d longed for a change in her husband, can’t stand the new David. They’ve swapped roles, essentially, with him becoming an optimist and her the cranky realist and it drives her nuts. Worse, the guru (named GoodNews) has moved into their house is now affecting the kids, the neighborhood, everything.

Hornby’s rare gift is that he takes these high-concept notions and somehow keeps them earthbound. Where Eating Crow spun off into the stratosphere, How to Be Good is uncomfortably realistic in its treatment of a marriage turned on its head and how lives are altered when you start acting unselfishly, for whatever reason.

I fail miserably in remembering the downsides of books. I know that this isn’t a thinly veiled Gospel so the theology may make some of you cringe, but when I recommend general market books I do so with the implied notion that one shouldn’t expect gentle, harmless fluff.

The book, as far as I can remember raised at least two interesting question. First, it made me think about the number of books I’ve read in which one part of a couple (almost always the woman) becomes a Christian and how their light and life just shine to their partner. And soon he converts as well. Hornby played with that notion and it offers the possibility that some couples may very well be torn apart by one’s conversion.

Second, it plays a twist on the whole conversion story by having it viewed through another character’s eyes. David’s change raises a whole passel of self-doubt for his wife (who always had the satisfaction of, if not being a good person, than an least being better than her husband) about her place in the world. What does it mean to be “good” in a Godless world? Who are we measured against? Is it even worth trying?

Those are interesting questions. And seeing a talented writer like Hornby bat them around is a decided, if somewhat poignant, treat.