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Stiff Little Fingers+The So So Glos

For every avid music fan, the John Cusakc film High Fidelity, (or I should say, the Nick Hornby book) is a turning point. Dysfunctional dudes and their broken hearts have been the topic of indie rock forever, this narrative humanizing the experience as much more than just exclusive garbage. There’s a scene where Dick, the soft spoken record clerk, flirts with a girl by telling her Green Day has a lot to owe to Stiff Little Fingers. He’s not wrong, of course. In fact, he’s very right: the band is the shot that started the pop-punk we’d all grow to love. Check it out for yourself with hometown heroes So So Glos. Hear that? It’s the sound of a million power chords.

Sat., Sept. 20, 8 p.m., 2014

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PRINT MATTERS

In a piece in the New Statesman last year, Believer editor Heidi Julavits laughs at an essay she wrote in The Believer’s first issue, which bemoaned that book reviews in newspapers weren’t long enough. “Newspaper reviews!” she writes. “Some of you might recall those.” But despite all the change, The Believer has remained true to its original mission of making the reader care about subjects “you had never known could be interesting.” Tonight, raise a glass to Julavits and co-founder Ed Park as they celebrate The Believer’s 10th Anniversary. Joining them will be Believer columnist Nick Hornby, Sheila Heti, Gabrielle Bell, and Amanda Filipacchi. Experimental jazz trio Dawn of Midi provide the tunes.

Thu., March 7, 7:30 p.m., 2013

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SO SILLY TOGETHER

Quiz time: Who was the inspiration for the following song co-written by Ben Folds and Nick Hornby? “I’m a fuckin’ redneck, I live to hang out with the boys/Play some hockey, do some fishin’ and kill some moose.” Yes, who else could it be but Wasilla mayoral hopeful Levi Johnston? Leaked last year, the silly tune titled “Levi Johnston’s Blues” now appears on the new album Lonely Avenue, featuring 11 “musical short stories” with music and vocals by Folds and lyrics by Hornby. Tonight, join them at this release party and benefit for the HIV/AIDS service organization Housing Works. Presented by Spin, the evening includes a discussion moderated by the magazine’s deputy editor, Steve Kandell.

Tue., Oct. 12, 7:30 p.m., 2010

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Topping Off

For the last few years Nick Hornby has vied with Martin Amis for the unofficial title of Most Influential Novelist in Britain. That Hornby seems to be winning says a lot for the general mental health of the British reading public. His infusion of pop culture into mainstream British letters has been a refreshing shot in the arm to a literary establishment fixated on artistic and political issues—class struggle, tradition versus postmodernism, etc.—that should have been blown out the garret window by the Beatles.

The problem, of course, with having your finger on the pulse of pop culture is that the pulse changes so quickly. The references to movies and rock singers in his novels High Fidelity and About a Boy already seem a bit dated, and given his apparent crankiness with rap and other recent musical subgenres, it might be time for Hornby and some of his characters to do a little growing up.

As readers of A Long Way Down, perhaps the funniest and most exhilarating novel ever written about group suicide, will be delighted to learn, this isn’t a problem. The title refers to a suicide jump from the roof of a building known as Toppers’ House, where four characters, three English and one American, have come on New Year’s Eve to commit suicide. Martin, a former television personality, watches his career go down in flames with the disclosure of his affair with a 15-year-old girl; Jess is the burned-out daughter of a minor government official; a failed American rocker, J.J. finds Britain a convenient place to mope; and Maureen, a middle-aged single mother, fights depression from caring for her disabled son. All of them—likable middle-class self-absorbed misfits—are recognizable as types to readers of Hornby’s previous four novels. Hornby allows each his or her fair share of humanity and humor. Maureen, for instance, wants to jump off the building holding a copy of Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, “[n]ot only because it would have been kinda’ cool, and would’ve added a little mystique to my death, but because it might have been a good way of getting more people to read it.”

There will be objections that Hornby’s characters are a bit too eloquent and witty to be typical suicides, but after all, they are characters in a novel and, more than that, characters in a Nick Hornby novel. As such, there’s no reason to think that they would off themselves—or decide not to—before getting in some incisive and highly quotable verbal licks. Only a cynic would not see
A Long Way Down as a long way up from much modern fiction, which seems to have been written to supply us with reasons to jump.

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Beach Lit 101

Whether you’re hopping on the jitney or climbing up to tar beach, don’t forget some choice reading material. Here are some faves:


THE CLOSED CIRCLE Jonathan Coe [Knopf, May] This sequel to 2001’s The Rotters’ Club finds the woefully underrated Coe following his clique of Birmingham high schoolers to London and points beyond, where they have penetrated the higher echelons of contemporary British journalism and politics.

ALL YESTERDAY’S PARTIES: THE VELVET UNDERGROUND IN PRINT Clinton Heylin [Da Capo Press, May] Relive the glory days of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable with this compilation of reviews, flyers, and VU ephemera.

A LONG WAY DOWN Nick Hornby [Riverhead, June] In a departure from Hornby’s usual territory of angst-ridden, pop-obsessed, lovable schlubs in romantic turmoil, Down gives us four protagonists with only one common trait: the desire to commit suicide on New Year’s Eve. Happy summer!

THE CLUMSIEST PEOPLE IN EUROPE, OR MRS. MORTIMER’S BAD-TEMPERED GUIDE TO THE VICTORIAN WORLD Todd Pruzan and Mrs. Favell Lee Mortimer [Bloomsbury, June] Mrs. Mortimer—armchair traveler and author of such proclamations as “The Spaniards are not only idle, they are very cruel”—makes a persuasive and hilarious case for staying put.

THE HISTORY OF LOVE Nicole Krauss [W.W. Norton, May] Publishing gossip has it that this second novel by Krauss is far better than—though oddly similar to—her famous husband’s (Jonathan Safran Foer, for those keeping score).

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Philly Pub-Rockers Present Daring Alternative to Difficult Art

Nick Hornby is full of shit. Actually, this is unfair to shit. At least life grows from shit. In his recent half-page essay printed on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, the lad-lit author stunned the music world with this revelation: They don’t make ’em like they used to! At least, I think that was the message. The thing is near incomprehensible when it comes to writerly bugaboos like logic and thought. In Hornby’s sad, blinkered, midlife-crisis-as-a-lifestyle-choice world, music is only worth listening to if it reminds him of all the classic rock that made him feel funny in the tum-tum when he was 10. The demons of his modern world: Britney and “difficult” art rock. Our hero cries: No way! I’ll take Marah, the humble Philly bar band! Though Hornby’s monthly column in The Believer is blissfully bereft of such bozo-isms, his Times piece manages to discount all the great crunk, grime, house, rap, metal, and dancehall that Kelefa Senneh has been writing so wonderfully about for the Times. Note to Op-Ed editors: Stick to Bush-bashing, ya friggin’ nitwits!

But what about Hornby’s great white hopes from the city that loves you back? Marah, and their founders, Dave and Serge Bielanko, have been making Springsteen-esque local-color roots rock for years, and they do it as well as anyone ever has. The rinky-dink piano, phlegmy semi-snarl, dirty streets, pizza boxes, and tattooed girls are all there on their new one, 20,000 Streets Under the Sky. Cars are “burning chariots,” and the past is ever present. It’s folk music for aging city boys with all the mythos and tedium of backstreet life writ purple. (I take issue with the line “The river smelled like a fishmonger’s hands,” though, since really it’s the other way around.) “Goin’ Through the Motions” sounds like an older, wiser Smashmouth. “Freedom Park” ‘s jungleland has a breezy going-down-the-shore vibe and nifty shimmy-shimmy-coco-pop chorus. I’d actually like to hear the Boss sing the one about the drug-addicted transvestite hooker whose dick between his legs makes him want to cry; it’s pretty catchy!

One thing Hornby must love is that Marah are not only of the bar, but of the pub. Their plain slice of Philly doo-wop sounds like early Joe Jackson, and elsewhere it seems they’re gonna bust out a Graham Parker or Boomtown Rats medley. They are one of those bands you’d probably love if you were drunk and they started playing sloppy Replacements-style covers (which they do). Sound-wise, they’ve split the difference between their early lo-fi playfulness and their previous album’s studio sheen. Marah have always struck me as a band who just love to play, making no great claims for themselves. Which is why they don’t need to be propped up as an example of all that is good and holy in the heart of rock and roll that is still beating in Cleveland.

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Techno Grows Up

When in late 2000 Nick Hornby wrote that Radiohead’s Kid A was a record fit only for teenagers—because adults don’t have time to sit in our bedrooms trying “to decipher elliptical snatches of lyrics”—you had to wonder: What cranky record clerk fed him that line? After all, teen pop was then in rocket-like ascendance, Britney and her ilk reshaping the market in the image of TRL‘s learner’s-permit set. In Hornby’s formulation, time-rich teenagers were the real intended audience for Thom Yorke’s dismayed rambling and Jonny Greenwood’s Ondes Martenot squeals. We grown-ups, our patience shot after long days pushing paper or changing diapers, are fit only for jangle and bubblegum, hook and chorus.

Like so many counterintuitive gestures, perhaps his argument contained a hint of genius. As if proof that the original ravers are getting old, a curious change has come over electronic music: It’s gone pop. I don’t mean Moby or the Chemical Brothers, who for the majority of their careers have been more pop stars than the faceless techno wonks that critics so desperately wanted them to be. No, all manner of underground electronic musicians are taking a kinder, gentler approach—one that has less to do with smiley-faced E than the easygoing pleasures of verse/verse/chorus.

Just look at Swayzak’s Dirty Dancing, in which the minimalist British tech-house duo of James Taylor and David Brown has masticated and fermented its typical boom-chik polka trot into a particularly high-test new wave distillation. There are a few traditional dancefloor tracks here: “The Punk Era” is constructed of little more than a thumping house kick and the kind of dubby wash that’s graced a thousand such releases. But if Swayzak’s inclusion alongside the likes of Fischerspooner on this year’s Ministry of Sound comp This Is Tech-Pop suggests a new zeitgeist swing, tracks like “In the Car Crash” or “I Dance Alone,” featuring electro(clash) stars Carl Finlow and Nicola Kuperus of Adult.—arpeggios churning, vocals thrown brazenly up front—confirm a new radio-readiness on the part of techno’s former anti-assimilationists. Despite the utter banality of the lyrics, a sort of parody on a parody that makes the concept of pastiche look positively sincere, the song’s J.G. Ballard-meets-Gary Numan asexual purr achieves the autoerotic closed circuit at which the best electronic music has always aimed. The same goes for “Buffalo Seven,” featuring Berlin’s operatic Kotai. While it’s tempting to write it off as but one more retro paste-up, Swayzak’s uncanny sense of texture, timbre, and space justifies an approach that otherwise seems like a drift toward Alzheimer’s.

Luke Slater’s third full-length under his own name shows signs of a more addled adulthood. He may have come up as a techno purist, but on Alright on Top, he’s joined forces with Ricky Barrow (of early-’90s pop-techno group the Aloof) to create an album of pure pop songcraft and retro affect. Every aspect seems recycled, from the vocoders to the synth pads—a rounded, queasy buzz like the presets on old Sequential Circuits synthesizers—to the octave-toggling arpeggios (Power, Corruption & Lies-era New Order). At the same time, Alright on Top‘s variety can be just as disconcerting. Depeche Mode’s early records worked the way they did because new wave’s stilted dialect was the only available option; Alright is like a flea market vendor pairing obsolete gadgets with mismatched AC adapters. While the sweetly chiming “Only You” sounds (once again) like a New Order outtake—though Barrow’s sexy growl is very much his own—it’s schized up with Squarepushery glitch-breaks and overeager scratching. Likewise, “Searchin’ for a Dream” is a bizarre amalgam of nu-metal, new wave, and breakbeat techno: a fine song on its own, but something of a rude awakening from the earlier tracks’ teenage daydream. In fact it’s the contemporary touches—the trance pulse of “Take Me Round Again,” the brassy needling of “Nothing at All”—that feel out of place on an album that otherwise takes heart in the certainty that “we’ve been here once before.”

Like so much else, we can blame this revisionism on the Germans. A few years back, after churning out version upon version of the same sturm-und-thump minimalism, labels like Cologne’s Kompakt and Frankfurt’s Klang began tossing drier sheets made out of ’80s iron-ons into their laundromat dub. The Berlin producer Schneider TM revealed his saccharine sympathies on his 2000 cover of the Smiths’ “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” turning Morrissey’s gloomy confessional into the equivalent of a digitized tombstone rubbing. His new Zoomer performs the same pixilated sandpapering on sunny-day chord changes cribbed from the Byrds and the Beach Boys. At times it’s a bit like a post-techno Jesus and Mary Chain, burying tambourine rattle and two-chord bangers beneath an avalanche of clicks and static. Singles like “Frogtoise” and “Abyss” are straight-up Tootsie Pop: After enough licks to the glazed candy shell, the sweet, chocolaty core comes oozing out. Nothing, however, is straightforward: Post-rave pop, after all, is forever mutated by the years of subwoofers and tinnitus, and so in the hands of Schneider TM, even a simple chorus of “oooo” sounds ecstatically synthetic. But then again there are those lyrics: “Cut a frog in half”? No, I don’t get it either. Must be a bone he’s throwing to the kids. After all, with music that goes down this easy, you’ve gotta give ’em something to puzzle over.

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Double Solitaire

Nick Hornby is a better novelist than he is a music critic, which admittedly isn’t saying much, but his books do hold some artifactual interest as fastidious summaries of the unexamined life. His professional solipsists are plugged into popular culture but utterly detached from actual people; that neither Hornby nor his protagonists seem to notice or mind the disengagement only adds accidental frisson. The author can convincingly represent interior drift: Stuck in an emergency ward with the young son of a woman who has just tried to kill herself, About a Boy‘s Will Freeman finds himself “absorbed almost to the point of enjoyment” in the drama, and the book’s smug breeziness momentarily becomes an Adorno-like chill. You’d be hard pressed, however, to find any credible affinity between two human beings in Hornby’s fiction—even About a Boy, in which the two primary concerns take the form of only-connect conundrums: the pitfalls of serial dating and the unlikely accord between an inertly wealthy bachelor and a pubescent loner dork.

American Pie directors Paul and Chris Weitz are remarkably faithful to the text in their film adaptation, lifting entire pages of dialogue along with the novel’s rigid high-concept tidiness (Will has no friends; the credits list no fewer than four actresses as simply “Bitter Ex-Girlfriend”), self-satisfied pop referencing, and blithe sociopathy. Will (Hugh Grant), a London bounder with an inheritance, enjoys a commitment-free fling with a divorced parent and suspects he’s stumbled on a mother lode. He fabricates a toddler and a desertion sob story to join an estrogen-dominated support group called SPAT, for “Single Parents—Alone Together.” (The creep quotient hasn’t reached such queasy heights in a cine-romance since rehabbing lout Ben Affleck hoodwinked grieving widow Gwyneth Paltrow in Bounce.) A SPAT picnic introduces Will to Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), a stoic 12-year-old equally bewildered by his bullying classmates and clinically depressed solo mum, Fiona (Toni Collette). Marcus catches on to Will’s dissimulation in no time, which gives the lad leverage to conscript him as de facto baby-sitter and fount of disposable income. Soon he’s posing (rather pointlessly) as Will’s son to help earn the affections of sultry Rachel (Rachel Weisz).

Since the central odd couple have no rapport, their bond never seems to progress past mutual usury—a weary-looking Grant has played the affably predatory cad too often (most recently in Bridget Jones’s Diary), and Hoult recites his darndest things in uncomprehending singsong. Collette, meanwhile, does her best to anthropomorphize her daffy duck, who mostly quacks and blubbers. The book, set in 1993 and ’94, invokes Kurt Cobain’s descent with Fiona’s suicide attempt and unresolved despair; the title summons Nirvana’s raw-silk ballad “About a Girl.” (The movie’s cream-puff chamber pop is provided by Badly Drawn Boy’s Damon Gough.) The Weitzes dispense with the original Cobain-haunted happy ending, opting for an improbable onstage redemption via “Killing Me Softly With His Song”—a sentimental inversion of an episode of Mike Judge’s comic-humanist landmark King of the Hill. (Newly empowered as a plus-size model, young Bobby is about to make his mall-catwalk debut when Dad drags him kicking and screaming from the scene, but the kid’s dream deferred turns out to be a disaster averted.) There’s something either mean or stupid about the triumph About a Boy finally contrives for Marcus: A film that takes hormonal grown-up deceit so magnanimously for granted shouldn’t be so willfully naive about the unrelenting cruelty of children.


The sadism of adolescent boys is dispassionately chronicled in the hour-long documentary Standing by Yourself (at the Pioneer), a highlight of the recent New York Underground Film Festival. Director Josh Koury, himself a teenager when the movie was made in his upstate New York hometown, trains his camcorder on the fraying friendship between wry, bookish Adam (Josh’s younger brother) and obnoxious punk poseur Siegfried, a budding white supremacist who ceaselessly hounds his mother for money. These restless high schoolers seem to have little in common except their propensity to troll for highs—in their parents’ pill stashes and the local drugstore’s cough-medicine aisle. A crystalline curio of dumbshit nihilism shot through with fleeting pathos, Koury’s home movie often evokes The Decline of Western Civilization Part III.

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How To Be Smug

I remember watching a thousand girls sing along with “Wrecking Ball” and chant “Girl don’t go away mad, girl just go away!” with gleeful gleams in their eyes as if the songs must be about the girl next to them, who was a bitch and deserved every bit of disdain and contempt that Mötley Crüe could spill. Fine, no law against it, Crüe rocks. But it’s a fine example of “false consciousness,” wherein you identify with the interests of someone who’s doing very well by treating you like shit.

If you feel an allegory coming on, good call. But first, a few words on the first-ever pop music critic for The New Yorker. I basically like Nick Hornby; he wrote that cute book with John Cusack in it. In his current essay for his bosses’ music issue, he spills his cute wit over the musical question “What does the new Top Ten list mean?” Said wit is too fatuous to quote here, but suffice to say that the brains behind it make Vince Neil’s critique of the feminine sound like Nietzsche.

Mr. Hornby places himself in the tradition of Gore Vidal’s 1973 literary slugfest with the Times bestseller list. Curiously, Vidal had an actual point about the cheek-by-jowl appearance of the arty (Solzhenitsyn) and the crap (Jonathan Livingston Seagull), and went after them both—for him, the list “meant” that hi/lo was a sketchy distinction in the marketplace. This may not be news anymore, nor the highest-minded insight in the world, but it passes safely over Mr. Hornby’s head, leaving his middlebrow undisturbed. He looks at his Top Ten list and sees only dismissable lo crap, as distinct from the canon fodder of his youth (Stones, Aretha) and arty stuff he favors now (Joe Henry, Olu Dara). You will notice that this is not, in fact, a thought.

Mr. Hornby’s datedness dates closer to 1961: an aesthete slowly waking up to the discovery that his paradise of elegant show tunes and jazz standards has been paved over by tasteless goons. Once upon a time, one wouldn’t have been surprised at a couple thousand words noting that kids lacked the subtle and discriminating taste of midlist novelists, and moreover that they were barbarians compared to the kids of yesteryear; such smug insights were common knowledge. But then it occurred to a few people—and then a lot of people—that both youth culture and popular culture might have some meaning beyond the the tragic debasing of traditional values.

Already far gone into boomer retreat and mortified into intellectual catatonia, Mr. Hornby seems to have shut all that out. Indeed, he deduces no meaning whatsoever, perhaps because his essential analytic move is simply to parse the lyric sheet. Why, after all, would a music critic suppose that some of music’s meaning might be located in the music? Just as well; when he does mention sonics, it’s only to note their success or failure at resembling music he liked back in the day. Another insightful fellow anxious to announce that the world was better when his body was younger.

In truth, music is incidental to what Mr. Hornby has to say. His main job is to flatter his employer’s readership: Don’t worry if you, too, should find yourself quite anxious about your age and concerned you’re out of it. Kids are just idiots and scum these days. Your values are still the real values. The failure of The New Yorker to employ a pop critic was for years a sign of retrograde snobbery. It turns out they mean not to remedy this position but consolidate it. The article does the same job as not having a critic, but more energetically: It insists that pop music is beneath discussion, if not quite beneath contempt.

If you like pop music yourself and pay money for The New Yorker, you are those girls at the Crüe show. Your pleasures are a source of loathing and anxiety for The New Yorker and for Mr. Hornby; they in turn are spilling disdain and contempt all over you. Their interests are not yours, though we can be confident they are interested in that dollar in your hand. Hmm, maybe they learned something from pop music after all. Perhaps we could learn something too: Girl don’t just go away, go away mad.

Click here to read a review of Nick Hornby’s novel How to Be Good.

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Good Grief

For Dr. Katie Carr, the narrator of Nick Hornby’s newest novel, How to Be Good, it’s a case of “be careful what you wish for.” A National Health Service doctor and avowed liberal living a fairly unremarkable life in North London, Carr has had it with her husband, David—who, in addition to having grown fat and inattentive, has quite literally become the title of his newspaper column, “The Angriest Man in Holloway.” While once David’s ranting and over-the-top cynicism were part of his charm, of late they’ve become intolerable. Katie complains that David’s novel-in-progress, The Green Keepers—”a satire about Britain’s post-Diana touchy-feely culture”—is “facetious, unkind, full of itself. Rather like David, or the David that has emerged over the last few years.”

But skepticism is the currency of the Carrs’ world. “There is a consensus in our particular postal district,” says Katie, “that people like Ginger Spice and Bill Clinton and Jeffrey Archer are beyond the pale, and if someone goes around sticking up for them then that consensus fails, and all is anarchy.” So when David undergoes a freak spiritual conversion that makes him the acting embodiment of all the armchair tenets of liberalism, and unswervingly nice, to boot, Katie’s life is turned on its head.

On a mission to right the world’s wrongs, David gives away his children’s toys and the family’s food, and insists that homelessness could be obliterated if everyone with a guest bedroom simply agreed to host a homeless person. (“What gives them the right to own half-empty houses when there are all these people out there in cardboard boxes?”) For Katie, whose moral calibrations have always begun from the point of view that as a doctor she is an inherently good person, David’s transformation puts her in the awkward position of having to take inventory of her own morality. It turns out it’s hard to argue with someone who has decided to act out against the inequality and hypocrisy of the world, without sounding like a tight-assed foot soldier of the Bush administration.

Under the pen of another writer, this could all be oppressive stuff indeed. But this is Nick Hornby. Which means David’s new guru is a man called DJ GoodNews, who developed his magical healing powers after a particularly good dose of E. It means that Katie’s inner struggle—and her wish for a less quacky guru of her own to provide easy answers—includes a lesson from The Empire Strikes Back. (“I wanted to be Luke Skywalker, off somewhere on my own, learning to be a Jedi. I wanted someone wise to teach me how to do the things I needed to know to survive the rest of my life.”) And it means the book is so razor-sharp and spot-on that you laugh out loud even as you feel secretly guilty because you’ve often scoffed at people who laugh out loud while reading. (And what gives you the right to laugh out loud while reading when there are so many people who have neither books nor laughter?)

The true success of How to Be Good is Katie herself. Hornby has taken on the risky task of creating a female narrator and has executed it flawlessly. As wife, mother, adulterer, doctor, sister, and contemporary middle-aged, middle-class conflicted liberal, Katie is believable, so much so that you don’t even give the male-writer-as-woman conceit a second thought. She’s sarcastic, selfish, strong-willed, but not in the way that some male authors allow their female narrators to be, with the poorly hidden hope that the writer will come off as enlightened. Readers of Hornby’s two previous novels, High Fidelity and About a Boy—which earned him badges of honor as a chronicler of the male psyche—will breathe sighs of relief and swell with warm fuzzy feelings of pride at his deft ability to evoke the female sensibility as well.

Katie is a deliciously likable person, largely because of her sense of humor—a characteristic of which David no longer possesses even a smidgen. When her daughter Molly cannot understand that not everyone in the world has a dishwasher, Katie panics, thinking that she has failed miserably in her children’s moral education. (“Now I see that she’s a stinking patrician Lady Bountiful,” Katie says of her eight-year-old daughter, “who in twenty years’ time will be sitting on the committee of some revolting charity ball in Warwickshire, moaning about refugees and giving her unwanted pashminas to her cleaning lady.”) She laments David’s transformation into a self-righteous pillar of no fun. “He is a model husband and father,” Katie reasons about the new David. “This particular model, however, is made of plastic and has his features molded into a permanent expression of concern and consideration. David has become a sort of happy-clappy right-on Christian version of Barbie’s Ken, except without Ken’s rugged good looks and contoured body.”

For all the charm and wit of How to Be Good, and for all it cunningly reveals about the choices we make, it suffers at points from an inability to escape itself. Katie waffles, wanting a divorce, wanting a reconciliation, wanting to live alone on her Jedi quest, wanting to hole up with her husband and children and try to live happily ever after while helping the indigent. With each plot development often comes a step backward, a wavering over an issue about which we’ve already heard more than enough. Then again, this seems exactly the point. Despite the self-help leanings of the title (which refers to a book David and GoodNews plan to write, then fittingly abandon), there’s no prescription between the novel’s covers. Hornby’s dilemma is paralyzing. If you are a kind person and donate money to charities and volunteer a few hours each week for a good cause, are you then entitled to laughter and meals out and even the odd purchase of a book or CD? Must you think, with each CD purchase, of just what or whom you could help with that $15, until there is no joy left in anything? How could we possibly live this way? How can we not?

With How to Be Good, Hornby set his ambitions higher than the pure wit of his other novels: He has written a funny book about our collective soul. While Katie Carr agonizes over how to be good, Nick Hornby seems—in literary terms, at least—to have it pretty well worked out.