With the publication of The Good Life, a novel that aims to be "responsible" and "moral" and "dignified" about the ways 9/11 changed the lives of the well-off in New York City, it's become clear that there's not a novelist in America who craves the love and approval of the literary class more than Jay McInerney. Cowed by the idea of taking on a Big Theme, McInerney squanders his best gifts—tender-hearted urban satire and a certain rhetorical mastery in describing romantic desire—and ends up with a book that's unwaveringly sincere and frankly ponderous: it keeps its chin up through tragedy, smiles through all the tears, and gets so dull at times that it's hard to imagine that its author was once almost cutting edge, combining a sly, shiny pop sensibility with a style so charming that it humanized postmodern irony.
He was lucky and talented enough to snare critics and readers right out of the gate with his first novel, Bright Lights, Big City, in 1984, with none other than Raymond Carver leading the charge. That book, written in a six-week burst of desperation and set in early '80s New York—with its armies of yuppies ripped on cocaine—had such a winning combination of satiric charm and innocence that it gave New York City back its literary gleam and single-handedly ignited the market for trade paperback fiction.
Like the young F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose shadow McInerney has never been able to get out from beneath, McInerney woke up to find himself a literary player, sought after by publishers, Hollywood and NYC's snorting literati.
McInerney's next two novels, Ransom and Story of My Life, dried up his literary capital as fast as the dot.com crash. Ransom was a hastily rewritten novel that countless publishing houses had previously rejected, and it promptly got butchered by critics and ignored by readers. As did Story of My Life, McInerney's strategic attempt to duplicate the success of Bright Lights, this time with a first-person party girl narrator who sounds like Paris Hilton avant la lettre. Imagine being in that girl's head for a few hours: no wonder the book tanked. Meanwhile, the movie version of Bright Lights bombed too.
Chastened by failure, stung by blunt (and totally accurate) accusations of literary cashing in and selling out, McInerney got all contrite and sincere, emerging in 1992 with Brightness Falls, an ambitious novel modeled (if only subconsciously) on Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night, about how the stock market crash of 1987 ended the romantic dreams of the East Coast yuppie generation for whom McInerney has served (self-consciously) as spokesman. Many of the critics and much of his audience returned—usually with comments about how McInerney had done his penance and was back in the club—and though there's nothing in the book that wasn't put much better by Oliver Stone's film Wall Street, it was prettily written, and McInerney could now relax. He was back in the lit world's good graces. In his last three books (including The Last of The Savages, McInerney's unconscious channeling of The GreatGatsby), he has continued to safely trawl Fitzgerald country—the lives and loves of the rich and sophisticated, delivered through a consciousness that aims for the classic balance that Nick Carraway (Gatsby's narrator) achieved between a love for "the heightened sensitivity to the promises of life" that the rich and talented supposedly possess, and a moral disapproval for all that they so often carelessly piss away.
The Good Life reads like McInerney is constantly looking over his shoulder, asking his forebears (in this book Fitzgerald, John Cheever, and I'm guessing the Edith Wharton of The Age of Innocence), "Is this O.K.? Am I doing all right? Am I doing justice to how sad 9/11 was?" The answer to that is: if you're giving off that kind of writerly anxiety, you can't do any kind of justice to 9/11. McInerney, in The Good Life, seems most of all to want to be a good responsible citizen, shimmering with sympathy for the lost and brokenhearted while getting all up in the face of the shallow and the greedy, and anybody not totally in the thrall of academically correct literary politics knows that the energies that create good responsible citizens usually create really boring art.
The Good Life isn't boring—largely because McInerney has at his disposal a large, sonorous vocabulary, an enviable feel for the pleasing rhythms of long English sentences, and, well, because he works so hard to create a shapely representation of post-trauma New York society—but it is obvious.
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It begins with a reprise of the opening scene of Brightness Falls, in which Russell and Corrine Calloway, the golden couple of the earlier novel, give a dinner party populated by New York sophisticates. It's the summer of 2001, Russell and Corrine are middle-aged parents now, and the party vibe, while chatty and "witty" (McInerney tries too hard to make his dialogue snap), is basically, "Oh, lost dreams of youth!" Russell and Corrine have stopped sleeping together, Russell has a paunch and Corrine no longer turns heads on the street.
Later, when the Twin Towers fall (they have a view of them from their TriBeCa digs), Corrine expects that she and Russell will come together in tragedy, but discovers instead that it drives them farther apart. Russell gets involved with a bitch of an assistant at the publishing house where he works (any McInerney woman who parades her sexuality is bad) while Corrine finds herself drawn to Luke McGavock, a man she meets on Sept. 12 while working at a hastily constructed 9/11 soup kitchen. Luke, for his part, has recently quit his seven-figure job as a financial manager—he restructures the debts of whole nations—in order to find himself (i.e. write a book on samurai movies, spend time with his wayward adolescent daughter) but also happens to be married to a 40ish sophistibitch, Sasha—also cravenly sexual and therefore bad—who doesn't appreciate him. (In the movie they will never make of this novel, she will be played by Sharon Stone.) Luke, down at Ground Zero to find a friend, walks out of the rubble, ash-covered, sees Corrine with her waiting bottle of water, and thinks he's seen an angel.
McInerney is at his best in the relationship that develops between Luke and Corinne—he captures pretty well the highs of new love's promise and the lows that come from the guilt they both feel at their extramarital affair. And he works up a pretty fair head of narrative steam as the two are forced to decide whether to ditch their marriages or not. The ending may surprise readers—involving, as it does, an act of renunciation in the name of "family and community" that feels more like Edith Wharton than Fitzgerald—and I suppose that's McInerney trying to be moral and dignified, but I felt less moved by the selflessness of the characters than annoyed with McInerney's altar boy goodness. Plus, 9/11 gets fairly lost. Early on, Corrine asks herself about her marriage to Russell, "Would this new apocalypse strengthen them, or reveal the weakness of their foundations?" By the end, the collapse of the towers, the war with Afghanistan, the "new normal"—it all becomes vague backdrop. What new apocalypse? It turns out that what McInerney has to say about 9/11—man, it was terrible, and people really got back to their "real lives" real quick—isn't that interesting, even to him, so he goes back to his bread-and-butter, which is sophisticated soap opera for the yuppie classes. I'm guessing his audience will be pleased, which ought to make McInerney at least momentarily happy, until it comes time to please again.
THE GOOD LIFE BY JAY MCINERNEY; KNOPF. HARDCOVER, 353 PAGES, $25.