- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 4, 2006

THE GOOD LIFE: A NOVEL

By Jay McInerney

Knopf, $25, 353 pages

REVIEWED BY CHRISTIAN TOTO



Few modern writers can capture upper-crust New Yorkers quite like Jay McInerney, even if critics find themselves split as to the literary heft of his prose. So who better than the “Bright Lights, Big City” author to stage a drama about how the September 11 attacks affected those very elites?

“The Good Life” revisits Russell and Corrine Calloway, the couple whose marital histrionics fueled the author’s 1993 novel “Brightness Falls.” The Calloways are still together when “Life” begins, weaving their way through one soiree atop another while balancing work and their two children. Said kids came courtesy of Corrine’s ne’er-do-well kid sister, Hilary, a subplot which adds little to the story but gives the author an excuse to prattle on about the sibling’s decadent lifestyle.

Hilary harkens back to “Story of My Life,” Mr. McInerney’s slim but electric tale of a young woman’s spiral down Manhattan’s hedonistic worm hole. Some literary instincts can’t be denied.

The Calloways are hardly the perfect couple, but they’ve survived long enough to reach a stage where going through the motions has become second nature. Enter Luke and Sasha McGavock, a more obviously mismatched duo trying to reign in their unruly 14-year-old daughter.

Luke quit his lucrative banking gig to search for something more meaningful, and it sure isn’t to be found in his gorgeous, plastic partner. Sasha lives for charitable functions and Botox injections, and she’d rather die than see their daughter gain another ounce. It all feels familiar, but thanks to the author’s vibrant, knowing prose it’s rarely dull.

Their dual domesticities vanish on September 11. Mr. McInerney tackles the terrorist attacks from Ground Zero — from the socialites orbiting around blast site to the blue collar workers sifting through the wreckage.

Luke stumbles upon Corrine the morning of the attack, two strangers connecting in a daze of fear and dust.

They meet again while volunteering at an impromptu soup kitchen, where regular Joes and Janes crank out stacks of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to keep the aid workers going.

Both are desperate for a human touch beyond their flawed spouses. Slowly, the two bond over their shared duties and a common sense of longing. Heck, Luke hasn’t even eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in years until Corrine sent one his way.

Corrine is everything Luke’s Sasha is not: warm, motherly and endearing. In Luke, Corrine sees a second chance, an unblemished man determined for the second half of his life to be a marked improvement over the first.

There’s still the matter of their respective spouses to contend with, and even though both have been unfaithful in the past, both Luke and Corrine agree their respective children shouldn’t have to suffer for it.

But they might all the same. We’re left with a “will they or won’t they” romance, but one so precious it’ll tempt some to root against, not for them.

Using September 11 as a baptism of sorts for stuffy New Yorkers may be crass, and at times the romance comes across as so sappy it must be the work of a master satirist. But Mr. McInerney tells it all with a straight face, desperately wanting us to ache for this couple and their precarious position. We’re left with one of the more foolishly sentimental romances in recent fiction.

Listen to Mr. McInerney describe an early kiss between the two, and imagine the same scene decorating a standard romance yarn: “He was surprised how easy it was, and how much he liked the way she tasted, her mouth a kind of living, briny delicacy with an earthy note, a taste almost of truffles, hinting of further and deeper pleasures.”

Mr. McInerney flirts with losing the reader entirely when Corrine confesses in a weak moments she’d rather the attacks happen all over again then never get the chance to meet Luke. Again, we look for the wink or the nod that this, too, is a comedic strike, but none can be found. It’s clear the author retains a keen interest in Corrine both as protagonist and as a decent person.

“The Good Life” isn’t without its selling points. For a while, Mr. McInerney grabs us with tales of a shattered New York. We see people walk past “missing” posters and talk of friends whose lives were snuffed out in the attacks. He keeps these moments small and moving, never romanticizing the pain felt by the city that awful day or in the months to come.

We’re immersed in the emergency workers’ lives and motivations, and feel a twinge of happiness when some New Yorkers tentatively resume the charity ball circuit.

The author also knows every level of New York society, having lived the good life himself following the wild success of “Bright Lights, Big City.” That experience shows in the way he describes the inner workings of the two couples’ lives, and the lives of those they call their friends and accomplices.

That restraint escapes him when Corrine and Luke are center stage. Their awkward courtship, amid their respective guilt trips, consumes far too much of the narrative.

They’re middle-aged but they feel like teenagers again in the throes of love. That kind of rekindling could make for a wonderful counterbalance to the terrorist attacks. Instead, their courtship contains too many dalliances written as if it were meant for a late night Cinemax screening. We’re inundated with dewy images of lovemaking interspersed with announcements of long dormant desires coming alive.

If that weren’t teeth gritting enough, Luke and Corrine’s banter during these moments is equally saccharine. The budding romance will take no one by surprise, nor should it need to do so. We’d settle for a rich series of encounters worthy of our time. Much better is Luke’s trip to his old home in Tennessee, where he reconnects with his elderly mother and reflects on the choices he’s made up until now.

The saga of Luke’s daughter Ashley — her descent into drug addiction and remarkable recovery, is too neat a story arc but it’s told with such bold strokes we’ll forgive its twinkling clarity.

It’s hard to believe Mr. McInerney watched the terrorists strike the Twin Towers live and came away with the burning desire to write a flaccid romance, but there’s little else in “The Good Life” to say otherwise. The story gives almost zero attention to any political ramifications to the attacks, nor do the characters muster up a great deal of anger at any point.

Dodging partisan patter might be a pragmatic choice, but surely topics like revenge and Middle Eastern mores would come up in nearly any social setting staged after the attacks. Imagine a formerly liberal couple jarred so resolutely by the attacks that they now espouse any and all means of military response.

Countrymen rallied around one another after the attacks, but beneath the solidarity lay elements of fear and the sense that somehow, in some way, something we did sparked the assault. That element surely stood out in some segments of a left-leaning city like New York, and it would have been fascinating to see Mr. McInerney bat the subject around at some length.

The lack of these insights stands as a gaping hole in a story which could use another layer of context. “The Good Life” ends on a predictably bittersweet note, but the resolution feels rushed and surreal even if Mr. McInerney has dropped hints all along the way. We’re still waiting for a compelling character study to rise from the ashes of Ground Zero.

Christian Toto is a features and entertainment reporter for The Washington Times.

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