The Good Life
In the weeks and months following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City, many writers and artists who lived in that area found themselves paralyzed by a sense of futility, a pervasive feeling that their familiar tools of art were insufficient for the task of representing a world in which everything seemed to have changed. As months and finally years began to pass, though, serious artists and writers did begin to rise to the task of creating art depicting the new city and new world in which they lived. Jay McInerney, who for more than twenty years had been closely associated with Manhattan thanks to his novels Bright Lights, Big City (1984), Story of My Life (1988), and Brightness Falls (1992), responded to the tragedy with The Good Life, a novel set in the days immediately before and after the events of September 11, 2001.
The book is a sequel to Brightness Falls, the story of Russell and Corrine Calloway, a New York couple in their early 30’s whose working lives and marriage are brought to the brink of destruction by the corporate greed and drug culture of 1980’s. The Good Life picks up the story of Russell and Corrine on the evening of September 10, 2001, as they host a dinner party for several friends (one of whom will be killed in the collapsing towers of the World Trade Center the following day). The Calloways are now in their forties and are the parents of twins conceived through a convoluted fertility process involving harvesting eggs from Corrine’s younger sister Hilary. Though their marriage and family life look perfect to many of their friends, it has become sexually and emotionally stifling for the two of them.
Parallel to the Calloways’ story line, readers are introduced to the family of Luke McGavock, a wealthy investment banker who, much to the distress of his socialite wife and teenage daughter, has taken a sabbatical from his powerful and lucrative job in order to write a book about samurai films while he reassess what he wants to do with his life. While the Calloways prepare for their dinner party, the McGavocks attend a charity benefit at the Central Park Zoo, during which Luke becomes increasingly distressed in realizing that his wife may be having an affair with a wealthy mob figure and that his fourteen-year-old daughter has already become adept at drinking and flirting with older men.
The early chapters of the book linger in the evening hours of September 10, setting the stage and introducing readers to the lives and concerns of these characters, particularly Corrine Calloway and Luke McGavock, who will develop into the principal characters during the remainder of the novel. Though the two move in different circles, both are caught up in a society that puts more stock in such things as dressing in the “right” designer’s clothes and drinking the “right” champagne than in a person’s actual character or behavior.
The author puts on full display the emotional and intellectual shallowness of such obsessions with status, as well as the drug and alcohol problems he presents as an almost inevitable result of this attitude. In the marriages of the central characters, McInerney tells readers that “the pathways of intimacy were clogged from disuse,” and the characters feel unspecified longings for something more “real.” The interior unhappiness and unattractiveness of these apparently glossy characters makes it nearly impossible for readers to entirely like or relate very well to any of them. At the same time, though, it is difficult not to sympathize with the quiet desperation of people who feel caught in lifestyles that do not reflect who they really are or what they want as they settle into the kind of middle age that they had never imagined.
In a masterful stroke, McInerney’s narrative entirely skips the day of September 11. So much has been written about that day, and about the reaction of those who witnessed the terrorist attacks firsthand, that it would be difficult for a novelist to add anything new to the discussion. The story picks up again on the morning of the twelfth, with the meeting of Luke McGavock and Corrine...
(The entire section is 1717 words.)