How To Be Good
A few months ago I had a bit of time on my hands and wandered into my old haunt, Deseret Industries. In my early 20s, I would bring home a bag of used books on a weekly basis, but on this particular visit, only one book caught my eye: Nick Hornby’s novel How To Be Good — a topic no Mormon can help but be interested in.
The story is about Katie, a general practitioner married with two children to David, whose only (ill-paying) job is to write a column called “The Angriest Man in Holloway.” Their marriage is falling apart and on the verge of ending when David runs into a spiritual healer named DJ GoodNews. The encounter turns David completely around, and he becomes the most philanthropic man in Holloway.
The healer moves into their home and starts to work with David on one grandiose humanitarian scheme after another. David gives away the family’s computers, makes the kids go through their toys and donate the ones they like, and convinces his neighbors to take in homeless kids.
Katie, who has always considered herself a good person (being a doctor and all), has a hard time dealing with these changes. David and GoodNews are throwing the household into the chaos, and Katie’s thoughts and beliefs along with it.
About half-way into this book, I started thinking, “This would make a great model for Mormon fiction.”
The difficulty with Mormon fiction (and anti- or critical-of-Mormon literature), in my eyes, is that someone is always right, and the purpose of the story is to show why that someone is right. Often, the author makes no bones about letting the reader know who that enlightened person is from the very beginning.
I realize that a lot of people enjoy this kind of fiction. Reading it is like riding a roller coaster where you know that, as wild as it may get, numerous engineers have tested this thing countless times, ensuring that you come out the other side as whole as you went in. I assume the same principle is at work in romance novels, where you know who needs to get together with whom; or sci-fi, where you know that the alien lord will be overcome; or literary fiction, where you know that the protagonist will end up alone, in the rain.
How To Be Good, however, is different. Though the reader is meant to side with Katie — the normal, sane, rational person — and look askance at David and GoodNews — the two who are sincerely trying to do good in the world — real goodness seems up for grabs.
For example, the reader completely agrees with Katie that housing a faith healer and a homeless boy named Monkey is a terrible idea. And, indeed, a couple of neighbors get burned by the project. But, by golly, three homeless kids find their way into a better life.
However, while saving homeless kids, Katie and David’s family is going to pot. Their son starts stealing from fellow students at school, their daughter slowly loses her humanity to sanctimony, and Katie’s brother shows the warning signs of suicide.
Though there is certainly a battle going on here, the book is not about who wins and who loses — who’s right and who’s wrong. Instead, it tracks what happens in the middle. How do the people caught in this tension change?
One of my favorite parts of the book is when Katie and her daughter, Molly, go to an Anglican church. There, they listen to a slightly cracked pastor who sings pop and broadway songs in her sermon. At one point, St. Paul’s thoughts on charity are quoted: “charity is not puffed up and does not vaunt itself.” Katie jumps on the quote as ammunition to shoot down her husband’s inflated righteousness.
She takes her shot during a particularly tense moment, but David points out that the same scripture was quoted at their wedding ceremony, except that charity was replaced with love. Then he drags out a box of memorabilia he had assembled a few days after their honeymoon. “It was a fantastic day. I was so happy. I just didn’t want to forget it,” he says.
And, for just a moment, despite their battling worldviews, a tiny bit of warmth sparks between them.
Her own warmth, Katie reflects later, “is sick, dying, or dead … there is just enough for Molly and Tom, but it doesn’t really count, because it’s a reflex, and my occasional flashes of warmth are like my occasional desire to wee.”
In the end, David becomes less reliant on Utopian visions, and Katie a little less reliant on rationality. They both become more fluid. In other words, we don’t have the triumph of an idea or principle (neither David nor Katie are right). Instead, we have a bit of change.
Mormons like to talk about eternal progression. And it seems to me that eternal progression is exactly what How To Be Good is all about. People don’t progress because they get righter and righter. They progress because their humanity, in all its idiosyncrasy, becomes larger, and more robust and diverse in response to their circumstances.
At the end of the book, Katie compares her change to a house, which she wants to “keep extending … until it becomes a mansion, full of rooms.”