Jay McInerney: The Good Life

Jay McInerney has always seemed to me to be the comic who wants not so much to play Hamlet as to write Gatsby. His comic novels of moneyed, privileged, damaged New Yorkers – from his debut Bright Lights, Big City through to Story of My Life and Model Behaviour – are matchless in their ability to meld wit and social observation. But he keeps stretching his efforts toward the sober and the epic, with mixed results. Brightness Falls is the best of those. Ransom was a disaster. Last of the Savages alone among his novels has fallen out of print in the UK, which probably says all we need to. And now, in the post-9/11 era, he has written a post-9/11 sequel to Brightness Falls, called The Good Life.

And it’s… OK.  Russell and Corrine (shouldn’t it be spelled ‘Corinne’?) Calloway from Brightness Falls are still alive, still together, and suffering middle-aged malaise.  The early chapters alternate between them and Luke McGavock, a former Wall Street trader who’s trying to convince his wife Sasha (a Tom Wolfe ‘social X-ray’ if ever there was) that taking a sabbatical from his job is a good idea, despite the diminution in status and income.  But this is the modern Fitzgerald era of McInerney’s New York, and without status and income, what else is there?

The answer to that comes off-stage, between parts one and two, when two planes are flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre.  We take the story up again the next day – “Ash Wednesday” – when Luke finds himself walking up Broadway, shellshocked at having missed death by minutes, after he rearranged a breakfast date.  He blunders into Corrine, and they console one another.  We know that people thrown together in highly stressed circumstances will typically form a bond, and you don’t need the gift of clairvoyance to see that when they both go to work at a soup kitchen, there’s much more than mere companionship on the menu.

This at least rescues the novel from the meandering opening – all drinks receptions and relentless new names to learn – and sets up a couple of soapy zingers of plot turns in the second half of the book.  Still, they don’t seem quite enough, and McInerney’s decision to restrain his comic gift as usual seems like a treading of water rather than progress.  Too often he insists on expressing all the thoughts in his characters’ heads, when sometimes we might like to work them out for ourselves.  Worst of all, for significant stretches of family to-and-fro, it’s just dull.  A recurring motif in The Good Life is discussion of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, which just made me keep thinking that if you’re going to write a book that isn’t funny, that’s the way to do it.

Still, McInerney can sketch a character deftly enough –

Russell almost collided with his former boss, Harold Stone, who was standing  forlornly beside his wife, clutching a drink, looking more than ever like a great horned owl, with his beaky lips and unkempt late-life eyebrows that rose into twin peaks halfway up his forehead.  At this point, Harold was such a monument, you could almost imagine the dandruff on his shoulders as pigeon shit.

– and the old wit surfaces from time to time, usually in bitter spousal arguments.

As a novel, The Good Life has its moments. But as a response to 9/11, it’s got nothing on McInerney’s own raw yet polished account of seeing the twin towers fall from the window of his apartment, published in the Guardian on 15 September 2001 (“Everyone I have spoken to is feeling indiscriminately compassionate.  And furiously vengeful”). In that piece, he visits his friend Bret Easton Ellis, who lives nearby. McInerney sees a flyer for a book launch lying around and tells Ellis (and us) with striking honesty: “I’m glad I don’t have a book coming out this month.” Ellis is relieved: “I was just thinking the same thing.”

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