With a title like The Good Life, Jay McInerney’s seventh novel is difficult to approach without reference to its author’s well-documented hedonism. The Jayster (to use Bret Easton Ellis’s name for his Toxic Twin) has no one to blame but himself. For two decades McInerney has affected a smug, bespoke-suited public persona—the rail-blowing, model-dating, sommelier-in-a-club-chair frat boy. There are dozens of writers in America more famous than he is, but has any since Norman Mailer relished his own celebrity so far beyond the point of self-parody? Don’t make the mistake, however, of letting the Jayster’s antics keep you from enjoying the bounty of The Good Life. McInerney’s latest book is a triumph, his finest novel since Brightness Falls (1992), to which it is a sequel.
In that earlier volume, Russell and Corrine Calloway were college sweethearts, the tall, shiny, irritatingly perfect couple who married young—or “savvy pioneers of the matrimonial state” to their single friends. When we last saw them it was morning in America, 1987, and their marriage was stumbling through infidelity and the bonfire of Reaganomics vanities: the revelation of Corrine’s affair with her husband’s best friend, coinciding with Russell’s dunderheaded attempt to take over the publishing company he worked for just as the Dow Jones collapsed. The Calloways have reconciled in the years since, exchanged their uptown address for a floor-through Tribeca loft, and squeezed out two children.
On Monday, September 10, 2001, when The Good Life opens with a dinner party chez Calloway (just as Brightness Falls did), the golden couple’s primary concerns are, as ever, typical of their bourgeois Manhattan set—material and status conscious. Disappointed that Salman Rushdie has canceled at the last minute (he’s scheduled to begin his book tour for Fury the next day), but playing it cool like any jaded New Yorker, Russell fusses over the meal with his professional-quality chef’s tools. He “had been perfectly happy with their Calphalon pots, a wedding present from Macy’s, until [a friend] told him the sous-chef at JoJo said they were for pussies.”
After dinner, McInerney wisely passes on the opportunity to narrate Tuesday and goes straight to Wednesday morning, by which time an armed checkpoint divides the island at 14th Street. In the immediate days that follow, “it seemed nothing short of miraculous” that Chinese delivery was still available. “This much of the metropolitan idea, at least, was intact.”
If it sounds at all callous or beside the point to take comfort in the trivial, maybe we’ve already lost touch with those gusty, blue-skied days, when our streets looked frangible and surreal. Or we’ve forgotten that our mayor encouraged us to respond to the terrorist attack by shopping. McInerney’s genius is to eschew the sweeping assumption that we were united rather than alone in our confusion; that there was a single collective experience of grief rather than millions of individual ones; that some didn’t lose more than others. By restricting himself to the milieu he knows best, privileged Manhattanites and literati, McInerney scrupulously conjures our panicked cultural landscape that autumn: the scrambling for Cipro prescriptions and combat-grade gas masks from Israel, the publishing industry buzz about The Corrections, Judith Miller’s anthrax scare, Is This It playing on the stereo. In disaster’s aftermath, his characters behave like real New Yorkers, their newfound generosity frequently at odds with their entrenched self-absorption and bluntness. (“I hate to tell you,” an NYPD officer admits, “but I was sleeping in that morning.”)
Helping out on the night shift at a soup kitchen near ground zero, where she prepares sandwiches and coffee for relief workers, Corrine falls in love with another volunteer, Luke McGavock, an ex–Wall Street magnate who is also unhappily married. Since retiring from banking, Luke has drifted, become untethered. He thinks of himself as ronin (though he’s actively not writing the study of samurai movies he often talks about). And his efforts to reconnect with his teenage daughter—one of the reasons he quit his job in the first place—are failing. Corrine, on the other hand, has lately tried to escape full-time motherhood by adapting Graham Greene’s Heart of the Matter, a project that only seems to inflate her doubt about her own self-worth (“writing a screenplay was, in their circle, code for being unemployed”). McInerney alludes to that novel’s moral conflict throughout, but the pervasive guilt clouding The Good Life puts one in mind of The End of the Affair, Greene’s masterpiece about adultery in a cosmopolis under siege.
McInerney’s filigreed, butter-thick prose and Chekhovian plotting also bear comparison to the Updike of Couples (1968), a novel about countercultural eroticism seeping into suburban mores. Like Updike, McInerney wants to know just how much history really changes us. The Good Life may be the most provocative novel yet about September 11, precisely because it dares to suggest that most of us weren’t changed at all.