Goodness is tricky. In theory, we’re all for it, but the admiration we feel for our fellow humans who possess that quality is often laced with skepticism about whether he or she is literally too good to be true.
Perhaps that’s why goodness that does not declare itself goodness — and that does not even necessarily aspire to goodness — is the most persuasive sort.
Take David Hedges, one of the main characters in Stephen McCauley’s excellent 2018 novel “My Ex-Life.” It’s unlikely that David would ever describe himself as good. He’s too self-aware for that. His is a non-cloying, matter-of-fact goodness, a matter of principles put into compassionate action.
Set in a seaside town north of Boston that is clearly modeled on Rockport, “My Ex-Life” would be well worth reading at any time for its wit and the subtlety of its construction, as well as incisive social observations like: “David had reached the point in midlife at which he’d grown used to hearing friends burst into tears for reasons both personal and global or for no apparent reason at all.”
But reading “My Ex-Life” in the middle of a pandemic, I found myself responding to what McCauley has to say (without ever explicitly saying it) about the power of simple human decency and the importance of making what difference we can in the lives of others.
As the novel begins, David Hedges is feeling unmoored, even though his “Seven Steps” formula for helping high school seniors get into their top-choice universities has made him an in-demand college counselor. A relationship has just ended badly, and the carriage house he’s been renting in San Francisco for years at a bargain rate is being sold out from under him — to his ex-lover and the lover’s new partner, no less.
Then David gets a call from his former wife, Julie Fiske, whom he hasn’t seen in decades, since their marriage dissolved after she discovered he was gay (and after David himself ended his state of denial on the matter). Julie is now also more than a bit adrift. She, too, is being displaced: from her marriage — her husband, Henry, has left her for a younger woman and divorce proceedings are under way — and also potentially from her home, which Henry is making plans to sell. This is especially problematic because part of Julie’s livelihood depends on renting out rooms in the house through Airbnb.
Julie has fallen into the habit of smoking pot more often than is good for her, and her teenage daughter, Mandy, is troubled in ways that Julie can’t quite put her finger on. It is Mandy who impulsively invites David to fly across the country and visit them and assist her with her college application. Soon David is in Beauport. He and Julie regain their old affectionate warmth — platonically this time — and he privately devises “Seven Steps to Julie Fiske’s Happy, Henry-Free Future.”
As the novel artfully takes us through the narrative unfolding of those steps, it’s clear that David is acting partly out of lingering traces of guilt about how things ended between him and Julie decades earlier, and that in devoting himself to helping Julie and Mandy turn their lives around he’s trying to do the same with his own. But it’s even clearer that David’s reasons fundamentally boil down to the fact that he’s a good person. And we can always use more of those.