Truckling to the very yuppie sensibility he pretends to mock, Nick Hornby is at his squishiest in How to Be Good (Riverhead Books, $24.95). Readers of ”High Fidelity” will remember that Hornby wrapped up that sharp tale of modern love with a disingenuously bright bow of a last scene. Here, the pattern’s reversed, and 305 pages of treacle (cut, it must be said, with acid humor) build to a final paragraph bearing more truth about marriage and family than all that preceded it.
The narrator is Katie Carr, a GP — as in general practitioner and, she’d like to think, good person. With her socially responsible job and headful of morally commendable ideas, Katie is faring well on the latter count, except that she’s been cheating on her husband of two decades. He, David, is a writer; his newspaper column is subtitled ”The Angriest Man in Holloway.” Katie, sick of his constant sarcasm, wants a divorce.
The split is averted, but the discontent persists. ”I wanted things to be structurally the same,” Katie says. ”I just didn’t want that voice, that tone, that permanent scowl.” The book is a record of such thoughts, but Katie’s every self-reflection is a measure of her life against the standards of literature and media: ”The difficulties I was prepared to tolerate in the early years of my marriage were essentially romantic in their nature, inspired by the clichés of young married life as depicted in TV comedies — or possibly, given that most TV comedies are more sophisticated and complex than my fantasies, by building society advertisements.” Funny, but what are we to do with a protagonist as flat as a billboard?
View her midlife crisis as a spiritually improving cartoon, apparently: David meets a healer named D.J. GoodNews, who fixes his bad back and also his mortal soul. The grouch transforms into a model husband and fanatical altruist, a selfless smiley face who says, ”But I want to make love to you. Not just have sex.” In time, David will invite GoodNews into the couple’s house and hatch plans to transform their posh block into a homeless shelter. By then, Hornby’s raining sickly sweet homilies upon his heroine, and the reader’s seeking the occasional cover of his dry wit.