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[whitespace] Why Good Things Happen Even to Critics

In his new novel, 'How to Be Good,' Nick Hornby examines the dilemma of rock journalists

By Gina Arnold

NICK HORNBY is the avowed hero of most rock journalists. Along with cartoonist Matt Groening (The Simpsons) and screenwriter Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous), he is one of the very few who have made good in another writing genre--and in everybody's dream genre, too: fiction.

I've never met a rock writer who didn't think they had the great rock novel up their sleeve, but Hornby's High Fidelity comes closest to making the grade. Normally, writers feel jealous of those who write anything halfway successful, but High Fidelity captured the loser/listmaker mentality so perfectly--and so unflatteringly--that all but the sourest among us were grudgingly reconciled to his genius.

This was quite an achievement, since writing about rock in a fictional fashion is pretty much a hopeless proposition, since the truth is so much more compelling. But Hornby's subject matter isn't really rock & roll, but fandom and how it affects those who find themselves caught up in its coils. In his second novel, About a Boy, for instance, Hornby attempts to deal with the meaning of the death of Kurt Cobain, and his memoir, Fever Pitch, is about being a soccer fan.

His latest, How to Be Good, however, has nothing to do with rock or fandom (though it does contain one rhapsodic and totally out-of-place passage about the French group Air, as well as a moment when a character experiences a religious revelation to the tune of Lauryn Hill song). Instead, the novel is about a female doctor's failing marriage. Her husband, David, is a writer, and in this backstory lies the crux of the novel's philosophic problem.

In addition to the inevitable failed novel, David writes a column for a local newspaper called "The Angriest Man in Holloway," in which he rants about things that annoy him, like old people fumbling for their change in buses, the uselessness of park benches and the little wooden sticks you get in tubs of ice cream at the theater.

Hornby doesn't say so, but I believe David is an intentionally distorted picture of rock critics and their snarky, pointless, jaded and cynical view of life. In the book, David undergoes a metamorphosis, coming to hate his own cynicism and attempting to become "good" via various selfless but annoying gestures, such as giving away his kids' computers and inviting homeless people to live in his spare room.

Of course, these tactics fail miserably and ruin his marriage. Even more tragically, neither David nor the book ever really figures out a solution to his dilemma: How does one reconcile one's critical--i.e., worse--self with one's liberal, caring and humane beliefs?

HORNBY DOESN'T KNOW the answer, but I admire him for exploring the question. At some point, many critics recognize that their writing, their talent, their very point of view on life is, in the end, not a very admirable way to earn a living.

Sure the world needs critics: without them, the arts (especially rock) would be in even a worse state, aesthetically, than they are. But being a critic creates a conflicted state in the critic. No one believes that our impulse to criticize stems not from hatred but from love, because sadly it's a lot easier to say something sucks than to say why it's good. It makes for better reading--and writing.

Hornby's own oeuvre is a classic example: lately he's been writing for The New Yorker, and his paeans to his favorite artists--Steely Dan, Lucinda Williams and Radiohead--have been weak and unconvincing.

A more successful article, however, appears in the Aug. 20 issue, in which he analyzes the Billboard Top Ten for the week of July 28: i.e., records by P. Diddy, Melissa Etheridge, Destiny's Child, Jagged Edge, Lil' Romeo, Alicia Keys, Staind, Linkin Park, Blink 182 and D12.

Hornby takes them down one by one, brilliantly and sensitively, especially D12, a side project of Eminem's: "Ever since Elvis, it has been pop music's job to challenge the mores of the older generation: our mistake was to imagine ourselves hipper and more tolerant than our parents. The liberal values of those who grew up in the 1960s and '70s constitute an Achilles Heel: we're not big on guns, consumerist bragging or misogyny, and that is the ground on which Eminem and his crew choose to fight. I know when I'm beaten; I can only offer sporting congratulations." Only Keys comes in for a modicum of faint praise, and that's only by comparison.

The rest is just a flash of the angriest man in Holloway, without the rancor and contempt. And probably to Hornby's (or David's) chagrin, the piece is both brilliant and a far better comment on the inherent and frustrating futility of criticism than How to Be Good.

Dando's Fury

I CRUISE THE ROCK BOARDS so you don't have to. My favorite item of the last month was one about Lemonhead's Evan Dando, who smashed a boombox on live TV. The show? Punk Rock Aerobics, a workout session set to punk-rock songs, founded by Hilken Mancini of Fuzzy and album cover artist Maura Jasper.

Dando was helping the two demonstrate the new Punk Rock Aerobics class on a New England cable news station, but during the demonstration, Dando smashed the boombox playing the Ramones' "Beat on the Brat."

I hardly feel I need to comment on the incongruity of punk rock and aerobics, but here goes: Is it not ironic that a type of music founded on nonconformism in looks, fashion and attitudes should ally itself to an activity that is all about attempting to stay in shape? "Staying in shape," after all, is a form of conforming to societal norms. It also implies a whole host of insecurities, guilt trips and lack of self-esteem that punk rock, at its finest, claimed to eradicate from the brains of its followers.

Maybe I'm reading too much into the incident, but aerobics ought to be done to insecure music--that is, impossible love songs and sexy dance tunes by men and women whose faces and bodies we can never in our wildest dreams emulate, thus making us feel even worse about ourselves when we look in the mirror. "Beat on the Brat" does not fall into the category. Maybe that's why Evan went mad.

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From the August 30-September 5, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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