Willy Muller is an ass. Recovering from a recent heart attack, he belittles his faithful if stupid girlfriend Penny, avoids ghostwriting a celebrity biography even though his deadline has long passed, and is both repulsed by and drawn to the diaries of his estranged daughter Sadie, who killed herself a few months prior.

He flees to Mexico to recuperate and spend more time avoiding the book and the notes on his screenplay, based on his own autobiography where he details his strained marriage, and his imprisonment and later exoneration for killing his wife. Because Penny isn’t immediately available to join him in Mexico, the unfaithful Willy brings the even stupider girlfriend Karen to keep him company.

While juggling his career and relationship issues, Willy struggles with a central philosophical question — if he can’t classify himself as a good man, is the only other possibility that he’s a bad one?

“I have to be — because there’s only that or being good, right? It’s like when you see the news reports about men who go rushing into burning buildings to save their kids or whatever. And you think, okay, so that man’s a hero — but what is the man who didn’t rush in? Is he a coward? Because it seems like there should be more options on the moral menu. If doing the thing is so bloody extraordinary, then not doing it should just be considered regular.”

The heart attack and the diaries from the dead put him face to face with mortality, and force him to re-evaluate his life, reluctantly and nearly subliminally.

Reflecting on his notoriety following his imprisonment and tell-all book, Willy says: “It was as if, having been tested once, and found so sorely wanting, I was now forever exempt from any cramping expectation of good taste or virtue.”

But Willy is not that sanguine anymore. Everything he knows, everything he thinks he knows, is perhaps not the complete picture of the man. And reading about Sadie’s childhood, a childhood he largely missed, Willy finds himself contemplating how much his past dictates his present and future. If you’ve done bad things, as he undeniably has and does, can you still be a decent person?

British writer Zoë Heller, author of Notes on a Scandal, convincingly gets into the mind of a misanthropic, selfish man who is, nonetheless, appealingly self-aware, funny, and sharply intelligent.

The book is infused with snide humour and vivid comic images, such as: “And the cockroaches! Vast, shiny brown things that stroll nonchalantly along the street, like ambulatory patent leather handbags.”

Heller’s sympathetic yet critical portrayal of her protagonist makes it a pleasure to read the witty, thoughtful story of a man’s slow realization that he may not be quite as much of an ass as he thinks he is.

Everything You Know by Zoë Heller is available from Vintage Canada, a division of Random House Canada.

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