The Good Life: A Novel
by Jay McInerney
Love and Society Among the Ashes of Manhattan
A review by Yvonne Zipp
Say what you will about Corrine Calloway and Luke McGavock, they don't meet cute.
He's covered in ash; she gives him a bottle of water. The circumstances are fairly
memorable, however: It's Sept. 12, 2001, in downtown Manhattan, and Luke had been
late for a breakfast meeting at Windows on the World. Jay McInerney explores how
their lives and their families are altered by the attacks on the World Trade Center
in his new novel The Good Life.
Corrine and her husband, Russell, (characters from McInerney's 1992 novel
are among those pitiful Manhattanites "trying to subsist on less than $250,000
a year." (Let us have a moment of silence for these hardy souls.) They
are parents of 6-year-old twins, conceived with the help of Corrine's younger
sister, in a subplot to nowhere.
Luke and his wife, Sasha, a social piranha, are further up the food chain.
Luke had been questioning his life even before the terrorist attacks -- quitting
his job as a financier and trying to be a full-time father and husband, to the
dismay of his appalled wife and daughter.
In the aftermath of the attacks, Corrine and Luke become volunteers at a soup
kitchen feeding the rescue workers, and -- shockingly -- fall in love.
McInerney invokes Graham Greene's The
Heart of the Matter (Corrine is working on a screenplay), in which a middle-aged
man, living in Sierra Leone during World War II, is torn by an affair.
But unlike Greene's finely tuned Roman Catholicism, McInerney is blithely tone-deaf
regarding conventions of morality. Luke goes on (and on) about Corrine's "morally
taut" nature, with McInerney apparently never realizing that if someone
is conducting an adulterous affair (not her first), her conscience has already
lost a certain amount of muscle tone.
While he's still prone to pointless name-dropping and careless errors (such
as messing up the title of Simon and Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair"),
McInerney gets off lots of well-timed zingers.
For example, Corrine gets to volunteer only because she knows the right people;
another woman complains that supermodels and celebrities have taken all the
slots at the "good" soup kitchens.
Then there's the Condé Nast ad executive who must show the National
Guard her Prozac prescription to get back home. "It was the only thing
in her purse that actually had our address on it."
Russell's good friend is in straitened financial circumstances, but brings
Cristal to a party. "Jim believes in cutting back on the necessities,"
says his wife, "but he can't imagine drinking Moët."
And McInerney has a reporter's eye for details that bring back the fall of
2001 -- whether it's New Yorkers comparison shopping for gas masks (the Israelis
make the best), or a cop realizing that even though he doesn't want to, he'll
have to retire this year. Pensions are based on the last year's take-home pay,
and he'll never come close to matching the overtime again.
Then there's the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. In her role as well-coiffed
yet down-to-earth everywoman, Corrine hands one to Russell, sparking a four-page
discussion in which McInerney is clearly hoping to channel Marcel Proust and
"It had probably been twenty years -- years of foie gras with poached
pears, curry with mango chutney ... since Luke had actually bitten into a peanut
butter and jelly sandwich. Corrine had thrust one at him, and he was astonished
by the sweet, acidic lash of the grape jelly, the gluey peanut butter sticking
to the roof of his mouth, the host of emotions and memories this now called
The PB&J ode marks the beginning of their romance, and the novel's slow
capsizing. At times, the prose gets so overheated that McInerney might just
as well have made Luke a hot fireman and been done with it.
Corrine is prone to saying things like, "Do you think we'll ever feel
guilty that if this terrible thing hadn't happened, we never would've met? I
mean, what if some supremely powerful being came to you and said that you could
wave your hand and everything would be as it was on September 10. What would
Luke's reply? "I guess I'm glad I'll never be faced with that dilemma."
Ah, yes, 3,000 lives versus a middle-aged fling. Move over, Sophie, we've got
a real heartbreaker here. ("What an absurd thing it was to expect happiness
in a world so full of misery," sobs the main character in The Heart
of the Matter.)
What's both endearing and flawed about McInerney's characters is that it never
occurs to them that they're entitled to anything less.
Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.
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