Nick Hornby is an Arsenal supporter. Extraordinarily this has not affected his sales – nor his writing. Which in his early novels was full of the wit, creativity and joie de vivre so notably absent from Arsenal’s football for most of the post-war period. For a while, Nick Hornby was not only an Arsenal supporter he was also Helen Fielding for men – but with his latest novel, How to be Good, he’s become Nietzsche for couples.

Hornby’s first three books exposed the insecurities and idiocies of men behaving ‘ladly’ – or at least of men toddling towards the realisation that ‘ladland’ is ultimately a drear and barren playground, and, that commitment to, one, yes, just one woman, might yield more satisfaction than the transient delight of another conquest. Ultimately, the novels were not so much about finding the right woman as about learning to love.

This was particularly the case in About a Boy in which it is the 36-year-old Will’s encounter with Marcus, a weird and naïve 12-year-old with a suicidal mother, that finally penetrates his studied, armour-plated superficiality. Will learns about responsibility through Marcus, and, in the end, he learns to love through Marcus. And that in turn enables him to fall in love, not with Marcus’ mother, but with the kind of woman he never thought he could attract – the gorgeous, intelligent, divorced Rachel who takes his breath away – along with his self-assurance and his capacity to be indifferent to the outcome of the relationship. About a Boy was firmly set in ladland but dangerously close to its borders and there were already hints that Hornby had caught a glimpse of the dark mountains ahead – the Mountains of Pointlessness.

In About a Boy, Hornby explored, through Marcus’ suicidal mother and the suicide of Kurt Cobain, the point of life. In the end, that novel suggested that the point lay in the desire to experience the next thing. Hope is wanting to know what happens in the next episode of EastEnders, wanting to know what your 12-year-old will look like when they’re 13. It’s said with a certain amount of conviction but it’s not very convincing, even if it is actually true that the thing that gets many people through the night is the prospect of next week’s game at Highbury.
Hornby ’s new novel How to be Good has left ladland behind and attempts to scale the North Face of the Mountains of Pointlessness. Hornby hasn’t lost his sense of humour but the force of the many comic moments is now moderated by an undertow of pain and struggle. This is a serious novel asking serious questions about the meaning of life and arriving at rather bleak conclusions.

The story is simple enough. Katie is a doctor with two children. She is married to David, the angriest man in Holloway, who rails against life, the universe and everything in a weekly newspaper column. She’s had an affair and she wants a divorce. Not because she’s fallen in love with her lover but because she’s fed up with living with anger and criticism and lovelessness.

David doesn’t want a divorce but his wife’s affair sobers him. By chance he meets a faith healer called GoodNews and he cures his daughter of eczema and him of his chronic anger. Suddenly, he becomes Mr Nice Guy, plays board games with his children, loses all trace of cynicism and becomes almost unbearably sanctimonious. He becomes almost what Katie always wanted and she can ’t stand it.

The healer comes to live with the family and he and David embark on a radical re-appraisal of every aspect of the middle-class existence which Katie’s job as a GP is so bountifully funding. Toys, food and the second computer are given away to the poor. Then David and GoodNews decide to try to persuade every household in the street with a spare room to take in a home-less youngster.

Katie hates the idea – even though she used to think she was ‘good’ and ought not to. And she hates the fact that she hates what she ought to love.

Her husband’s self-righteous do-goodery forces her to question the significance of her own life and the authenticity of her cynical, Guardian-reading liberal friends who bemoan the plight of the poor but will do so little for them. Katie realises that she can no longer hide behind her job as a doctor to pass the test of goodness – she’s an adulteress, she doesn’t know the first names of some of her longest-standing patients, she resents giving money away to people who need it, she resents having someone living in her spare room even though she doesn’t need the room. Worse still,she sees with uncomfortable clarity that there is actually very little difference between ‘offering spare bedrooms to evacuees in 1940 and offering spare bedrooms to the homeless in 2000.’“Why,” she asks herself, and us, “isn ’t a standing order with Shelter enough?” And what of the clinically depressed brother she hardly sees, and other relatives she doesn ’t reach out to? Katie begins to see the hollowness and hypocrisy of her life. At this point she thinks that she sees the appeal of born-again Christianity: “I suspect that it ’s not the Christianity that is so alluring: it’s the rebirth. Because who wouldn ’t wish to start all over again?”

This momentary reflection is followed by a foray into a church. She eschews anything too serious. She’s looking for ‘lack of conviction’ and she finds it in a dying liberal congregation with a ‘kindly middle-aged’ vicar “who seems vaguely ashamed of her beliefs, the sparsity of her congregation, and its apparent lack of interest in anything or anyone …” Nevertheless it is here that Katie hears I Corinthians 13 in the King James Version. It sounds vaguely familiar and later she realises that it had been read at her wedding in a translation where the word ‘charity’ had been replaced by the word ‘love.’

Afterwards, it dawns on her that love and charity are inextricable – except in her life.

None of this leads her to God, though the vicar visits her surgery looking for pills to dull the agony of doing a job for a deity you ’re no longer sure you believe in. Katie, fully aware of the vicar’s lack of conviction, asks her whether she should stay in her marriage or leave. Reluctantly, the vicar tells her to stay – but it’s her job title that forces him to give that advice, not any personal conviction. Still, it’s enough for Katie.

For a while she moves out to a bed-sit close-by – just to sleep. And the space it provides her is a source of solace – she reads books, listens to CDs, has the chance to just ‘be’. But it is only a temporary release, not a solution. She recognises that at root she has ‘soul-ache.’ And so one day she asks GoodNews to heal her of a headache she doesn’t have. He knows she doesn’t have it and he can’t do anything for her deeper problem. Something in her has died. Her battery is flat. And she can’t get it started.

In the end Katie asks GoodNews to leave the family home and she re-constitutes her family. She will get what comfort she needs from 30 minutes a day with her CDs and her headphones – an escape into a somewhere else. Without substance, to be sure, but relief of a kind. And as for doing good, she realises that they can help others a little, but not a lot. She and her family just don’t have the emotional resources to reach out too radically with-out destroying themselves. It sounds sensible – like St Martin giving half his cloak to a beggar in the middle of a rain storm. Martin needed protection and warmth too. However, Katie’s cool appraisal of the limits of their capacity to do good is set in a nihilistic context.

The final scene finds the whole family outside, clearing a gutter of leaves in the middle of a torrential rain storm. It looks like the perfect nuclear family.

Katie begins to muse: “I can live this life. I can, I can. It’s a spark I want to cherish, a splutter of life in the flat battery; but just at the wrong moment I catch a glimpse of the night sky behind David, and I can see that there’s nothing out there at all.” For Hornby, ‘ladland’ is now a dim and distant memory. He is trapped in the Mountains of Pointlessness – where the vista from every bare, flinty peak he climbs is either of the interminable bare, flinty peaks ahead, or the long fall into an impenetrable oblivion below. to be Good Viking, 2001, £16.99
About a Boy Penguin, 1998, £6.99
High Fidelity Penguin, 1995, £6.99
Fever Pitch Penguin, 1992, £6.99