It is the nature of catastrophe that the most mundane of moments are transformed, in the split second it takes for an explosive blast to be heard, into life altering experiences. Jay McInerney, an author tied to New York City in the most personal and literary of ways, experienced just such a moment when he stood on a chair, struggling to fix a broken window shade, and glimpsed a flash of red-orange on the north tower of the World Trade Center. That flash, and the following weeks McInerney served in a soup kitchen feeding policemen, iron workers, and rescue personnel, provided the catalyst for his newest novel, The Good Life.
The novel begins in late summer and introduces the comfortable, but empty life of Corrine and Russell Calloway. The Calloway’s were first featured in McInerney’s magnificent 1992 novel Brightness Falls, and by early fall of 2001, they’ve survived a separation, but hit upon a period where their marriage is haunted by suspicion and old ghosts. Meanwhile, wealthy businessman Luke McGavock quit his finance career to work on a book about samurai films but finds himself struggling with direction in his life while trying to save his extravagant teenage daughter from the excesses of her mother. As with any McInerney work, the novel’s cast of characters is filled out by a variety of social register debutantes, famous artists, wanton writers, big business executives, and other beautiful people.
Ever since his 1984 debut novel, Bright Lights, Big City, McInerney has been famous for his ability to chronicle the idiosyncrasies of the affluent. And this current novel is proof that he hasn’t lost his eye for social detail. This is a group of people who joke that one of the greatest lies is when a photographer says “just one more”, and where cooking has become the “new sphere of masculine competition… comparing notes on butchers and cutlery the way they used to deconstruct stereo equipment, garage bands, and young novelists.” These kinds of details are found throughout The Good Life and they are our generation’s version of the finely tailored shirts and yellow town cars that cause so many critics to compare McInerney to F. Scott Fitzgerald. But these class observations, engaging as they are, serve only as a spice to the novel’s primary ingredient.
The attack of 11 September itself is left to our memory, appropriately realizing that the images from television were scorched into consciousness, and no author could improve, alter, or disagree with those images that still plague so many of us. The post 9/11 New York City is introduced simply. “Ash Wednesday. The debris — the paper and sooty dust — had surged up the avenues and stopped at Duane Street.”
Corrine meets Luke as he staggers up West Broadway, covered in ash, and disoriented:
Yesterday morning, and well into the afternoon, thousands had made this same march up West Broadway, fleeing the tilting plume of smoke, covered in the same gray ash, slogging through it as the cerulean sky rained paper down on them — a Black Mass version of the old ticker-tape parades of lower Broadway. It was as if this solitary figure was re-enacting the retreat of an already-famous battle.
Corrine hands this stranger her bottled water, notices the blood and grime on his hands, and answers his question as to what day it is. He recalls his experiences at the World Trade Center and the frantic search for his lost friend. The two dazed New Yorkers share a moment on the street and bond in the way that cataclysms weld people together. Corrine gives Luke her phone number and asks him to call when he safely makes it home:
It was in many respects a typical encounter on the day after, one of thousands between stunned and needy strangers, the kind of thing she might have recalled months or years later when something reminded her of that time or someone asked her where she’d been that day.
From a plot perspective, the novel hinges on that chance meeting. Corrine and Luke dive into the energy, despair, and exhilaration of volunteering at a soup kitchen during a time when most inhabitants of the city strove to find meaning, respite, and a way to become better people. They find a kinship and stand together as their lives and marriages crumble. In a time when the characters shed tears without warning, discover their children’s sexual involvements, suffer their spouses high profile affairs, and merely deciding upon an outfit to wear to a party is a trial, Corrine and Luke savor each other’s stabilizing influences. In addition to being a novel about a heartrending time in our nation’s history, The Good Life is also a powerful novel about the intoxication of love.
The mastery of The Good Life lies not in plot twists or stylistic pyrotechnics. Instead, the novel is served best by the near perfect pitch and tone of McInerney’s portrayal of that difficult time. This is a story that could easily have been overly sentimental and sweet. Or, it could have easily wallowed in despair and pain. McInerney struck a perfect balance between the good and the bad, the determination to serve our fellow man, the anger of victimized New Yorkers, the way some people chose to help and others retreated further into their own selfishness. Not every single person in New York City on that fateful day was a hero or a villain. And McInerney doesn’t take the easy way of portraying his characters in those simple terms either. “There were clichés of response to that event that we had to get past,” McInerney says. “People did not suddenly become saintly overnight, as much as we all might have wanted to change and even tried to. We remained human.” It is in this well-balanced, intrinsically human portrayal that McInerney succeeds with The Good Life. Television and history books have claimed the dry facts and the archival images of 11 September. But the perfect tone and human nature of this novel has captured the people, their emotions, and their stories.