Jay McInerney – The Good Life

A note: Prompted by the time of year, I dug this out of my drafts folder and finished it. 90% of it was written a while ago, but I smoothed the rough edges and added a little perspective gained with the benefit of time to reflect further. Great book. If anyone has read Brightness Falls and not read The Good Life, they should do so. Read it anyway, even if you haven’t. Hell, read both!

SPOILERS: I’ve done my best to keep this spoiler-light and have deliberately avoided a detailed discussion of the ending for those who haven’t read The Good Life, in the hope that reading this might encourage exactly that. Nevertheless, I can’t guarantee that you won’t pick up some plot points that you would rather not have done.

I am a completist. I don’t deny it. It’s hard to do so to anyone who knows my bookshelves, CD racks or iPod, laden as they are with late-period mediocrities by once-great artists. I once owned every single recorded note Joni Mitchell ever produced, when anyone will tell you that you should stop at Hejira for your own good, thereby saving yourself the best part of a day of enduring her descent into jazzy irrelevance. I did the same thing with Springsteen, although that line is harder to draw, more of a rollercoaster than a one-way ticket. I do it with books, too, ploughing manfully on in the face of the critical gatekeeper’s unheeded cries. “Don’t bother!” they say. “He never bettered the one you’ve already read!” Fie, I say.

The latest beneficiary of this excess of faith in dwindling artistic output is Jay McInerney. McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis are, it seems, irrevocably tied together and, having now read Ellis’s entire oeuvre, it seemed only fair to move on to McInerney. Bonded by more than just the Literary Brat Pack label of the 1980s, the two are apparently good friends. However, whilst Ellis can still stop traffic with the launch of a new novel (I should know, I attended the London leg of the Imperial Bedrooms tour), McInerney seems to me to have drifted into relative obscurity (to the point where I was able to pick up more or less his entire published works for £2 or £3 a pop at my local FOPP) and a wine column for the WSJ. As you may have gathered from a previous entry, I struggle to grasp why McInerney is considered a middle-aged mediocrity whilst Ellis’s every tweet sets the twitterati a-flutter.

Like all New Yorkers, Ellis and McInerney were connected by the events of September 11th 2001. McInerney’s initial response to those events was published at the time by The Guardian, and makes fascinating reading. He visits his friend Bret and they try, and inevitably fail, to make sense of what is unfolding in front of them.

5 years later, McInerney produced a fictionalised response to 9/11 in the form of The Good Life. Nominally a sequel to Brightness Falls, it shares little except a core of characters, and even then there’s plenty of new ones added to the mix.

Russell and Corinne Calloway are probably McInerney’s most likeable protagonists. Like most of them, they are white and wealthy. Unlike almost all of them, and indeed most of their friends, Russ and Corinne feel guilt about this from time to time. Guilt is a core theme of the book, focusing as it does on the extramarital exploits of Corinne and her newfound friend Luke. Luke stumbles out of the dust cloud on “Ash Wednesday” September 12th 2001, having been clawing his way through the rubble with his bare hands looking for a friend he was supposed to have met at the WTC the previous, fateful, morning. He changed the time, cheated death and is wracked with survivor’s guilt because his friend didn’t get the message, arrived at 8am and is now buried in the rubble. In this state, he sees Corinne, and in the same moment falls for her.We are probably not supposed to find this terribly surprising; trauma, a heady cocktail of guilt and euphoria at being alive, a faithless wife and a beautiful new woman arriving in his life, stepping out of the dust like an angelic apparition. None of what follows quite manages to tarnish the beauty of this moment.

Luke’s 14-year-old daughter Ashley reacts to the attacks by slipping further down what we are lead to believe has been a long-term descent into a prescription drug habit, underage sex and depression. She runs away from rehab to her grandmother’s (Luke’s mother’s) house in rural Nashville, where Luke follows. His arrival is one of the most elegant moments of prose in the novel, encapsulating just how much of an intellectual McInerney’s narrator is:

The dogs announced his arrival – three adopted strays who met him halfway up the gravel drive and escorted him to the house, […] the farmhouse, dating from the lean years after the war, stopped short of any pretensions to plantationhood. […] its simple lines and gables closer to the architectural vernacular of rural New England than to the Greco-Georgian vocabulary of the landed southern gentry.

There, conveniently for the narrative, Luke is able to work out precisely the issues that are threatening to stifle his burgeoning relationship with Corinne. His mother’s approval secured and Ashley’s recovery seemingly aided by fresh air, home cooking and horse-riding, they return to the city and attempt to play happy families once more.

McInerney’s true stroke of genius is to make the structure of the narrative match its subject matter. “Jim” is anonymous, the distant friend-of-a-friend caught in the towers that everyone must have known in the wake of 9/11.  Characters swim in and out of focus, drift into and out of the narrative without ever really becoming clear, but the effect is to disorientate the reader. I’ll credit the author with creating the sense of disorientation on purpose, to reflect what’s going on in his protagonists’ heads.

Lesser writers have churned out these tired cliches and produced the kind of bad fiction that lines the shelves of airport branches of bookshop chains. That McInerney can take “grasping, skinny social climber wife”, “pretty teen daughter who experiments with sex and drugs” and “investment banker seeking more meaningful way to fill his days” and come up with three-dimensional characters is testament to his considerable prowess.We root for them, wish that they could somehow be together, envy their weekend away on Nantucket. We give a fuck about characters around whom a world is being built and destroyed, remade in the weeks following 9/11.

I was struck by one particular similarity between The Good Life and Bright Lights, Big City. For all that they share very little (Good Life is longer, more bloated, more conventional and considerably less innovative in terms of narrative technique or literary devices), once again, McInerney has crafted a beautiful, shocking, powerful denouement that reverberates far beyond its relatively brief confines. In a few short pages at the very end of the novel, his protagonists’ moral compasses swing back on course. It’s sad, touching and at least a little unexpected. Once again, McInerney has created a protagonist who leans into the abyss of tragedy but pulls back, conquers (or at least subdues) his flaws and makes a decision to change the way he leads his life.

If Jay McInerney ever gets tired of writing about rich white Manhattanites or wine, he could do worse than write self-help books. Alternatively, if rich white Manhattanites ever get sick of reading self-help books, they could do worse than read some McInerney novels; they just might find in them a reflection of the kind of person they could be.

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