For better or worse, Jay McInerney’s bestselling “Bright Lights, Big City” has probably compelled more readers to hit the clubs than hit the books. Published in 1984 and intended as a satire of New York’s vapid social scene, the novel rapidly transcended any typical “literary” audience. In certain places (including Yale), it is one of those books everybody seems to have read.
The novel’s success stemmed, in large part, from its college-aged, charismatic author. In fame’s wake, McInerney dated glamorous women, sampled exotic drugs and attended exclusive parties. For a while, he was a fixture on New York’s society pages. In other words, he appeared to live the very life his writing condemned.
And now, 22 years later, just as McInerney’s clear blue eyes have gathered wrinkles around the edges, his spoiled, drug-fueled characters have transformed into parents and professionals. His new novel, “The Good Life,” follows two such couples as they and their city enter the tumultuous, terrorized 21st century. And although it is essentially an artistic failure, “The Good Life” remains relevant and illuminative. Mostly, however, it demonstrates that McInerney — unlike the towers featured on his debut’s cover, the ones that made his city so big — is still standing.
“The Good Life” falls squarely into an uneven, emerging genre: the 9/11 novel. As its cover reflects, “The Good Life” takes a supposedly direct approach to the day. This is especially significant because many authors have chosen to depict the event peripherally or obliquely. Even Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” which deals with 9/11 in a way that is, quite literally, graphic (an image of a man falling from the towers is essential to the novel), tempers its immediacy by relating all events from its juvenile narrator’s perspective.
Building upon Foer’s use of imagery, the cover of “The Good Life” features a defining 9/11 photo: a bowl, fork and spoon, blanketed in ash. Its spine and back feature similar images: a sooty glass of water and an entirely dusted rack of shirts. These images, which have never been so explicitly and prominently used, epitomize the fundamental tension between the day’s hyper-reality and modern life’s conventionality. This is ripe material for McInerney: In “The Good Life,” even as friends and lovers’ lives end, the dinner parties continue.
On the other hand, McInerney is simply a clumsy writer. He excels at portraying groups, but cannot conjure fully contoured individuals. The novel’s characters consist of two couples: First there is the downtown, trendy editor and his wife, Russell and Corrine Calloway (who appeared in McInerney’s ambitious, but also not entirely successful “Brightness Falls”). Russell is pretentious and essentially irrelevant. “Too old for Brooklyn and too young for Pelham,” Russell fits nowhere in McInerney’s world, and the author has little interest in him. Of the two, Corrine is far more thoroughly developed. Having left law to raise children, she has begun a screenplay, which is, “in their circle, code for being unemployed.” Yet, she remains creative. Indeed, throughout the story — and especially as the city descends into death — Corrine’s character drums with life.
In the novel’s alternating chapters, Luke and Sasha McGavock foil the Calloways. Luke is an exorbitantly wealthy I-banker who left his job to write a Samurai novel and Sasha is a “professional beauty.” In other words, while we are meant to like Luke, perhaps even admire him, Sasha is pure evil. One suspects she is a stand-in for one of McInerney’s ex-girlfriends.
These thin, obvious characterizations highlight the novel’s fundamental flaws. A good satirist ought to hate everybody equally, and a good novelist, possessing saintly insight and affection, ought to love everybody, especially those the rest of us discard. McInerney does neither. And although he can be clever (when Corrine’s neighbor Rebecca brags about her many anxiety medications, the author explains, “She sold ad space for Conde Nast, apparently a very stressful job”), clever is not enough to sustain a 353-page book.
If this is unfortunate, it is only because McInerney gets some stuff right. Luke and Corrine — who first meet as a hysterical Luke emerges from a business meeting amidst the rubble on September 12 — both volunteer at a makeshift soup kitchen that offers the rescue workers everything from coffee to calzones. As Corrine observes, “Everyone wanted to volunteer, to get close, to work off the shock, to feel useful, to observe the carnage, to help. … After the initial exodus of thousands from downtown, the flow of bodies had been reversed as thousands more had attempted to reach the site, only to be turned away at the police barricades.”
Soon, Luke and she embark upon a doomed affair, which is surprisingly bland stuff. Somehow, adultery between the terrorized and traumatized makes for awfully dull reading. Eventually, Luke is shocked by more private tragedy: his 14-year-old daughter’s suicide attempt. Gradually, he retreats uptown and to the familiarity of his pre-9/11 life.
And although it is handled awkwardly and revealed far too slowly, this inevitable return to normalcy is the book’s true insight and accomplishment. Near the novel’s end, Luke muses, “For a few weeks, they had all found it impossible to believe that anything would be the same ever again.” His tense underscores the tragedy. Ironically, as this sensation ebbs, as McInerney’s men and women return to banality, “The Good Life” becomes more exhilarating.