Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Good Life.
Jay McInerney has written a tale of September 11th and mid-life marriage in The Good Life, his seventh novel. The story revolves around two Manhattan families: the art-centered Tribeca Calloways, and the up-town, socialite MacGavoks. Corrine Calloway gave up her career as a lawyer when she had her twins, Jeremy and Storey, which means she and her literary editor-husband, Russell, remain in their too-small loft. Their circle includes Salman Rushdie.
Luke MacGavok is a hot-shot banker married to the beautiful Sasha, a mover-and-shaker among the elite of Manhattan. They have a precocious fourteen-year-old daughter, Ashley. Luke thought he would finally get to know her when he quit banking the previous year, ostensibly to write a book about samurai films, but found he had come home just when Ashley has started to leave the nest.
The reader is introduced to the families on September 10th, 2001. Corrine is trying her hand at writing a screenplay; Luke is dealing with the fallout of a benefit dinner where he saw his daughter get drunk and his wife do the bump-and-grind with the most powerful man in New York who, it is rumored, is her lover.
Enter the planes and the tragedy, and Luke and Corrine meet in a surreal
fashion on the 12th. Luke rushed to Ground Zero to look for a friend and was part of the first bucket brigade, moving pieces of rubble with his hands. When he could do it no longer, he staggered back toward home, and saw just one person – Corrine, who has come out of her apartment at just that moment. She gives him water and her phone number so he can tell her he
has made it home. When he does call, he finds that she is volunteering at a Ground Zero soup kitchen. He decides to join her, and romance blossoms while their home lives fall apart.
McInerney, the onetime wunderkind author of Big Lights, Big City, has been criticized for writing about shallow people before, and the trappings are here. For instance, are we supposed to feel sorry for Corrine that her family can’t afford a second home in the Hamptons?
In addition, not all the characters and situations feel real. Sasha MacGavok is a stereotype of a beauty, and her daughter Ashley makes a 180-degree turnaround that doesn’t ring quite true for a worldly fourteen-year-old. When Russell’s lover confronts him in front of Corrine at a publisher’s party, it strains credulity. Do these things happen in real life? Not many of us would know.
McInerney is a skillful writer, however, and he is able to bring the story to life with his attention to detail. In simple, evocative prose, he describes Corrine’s experience of night falling in the city (it quickens her pulse as the “disparate workday tribes” spill into the city), or what she feels in the presence of the dead as she approaches Ground Zero: “a kind of psychic static. So palpable was the impression that sometimes she feared she might seem them, wafting luminously through the canyons of the Financial District.”
He also draws Corrine and Luke in complex ways that defy strict stereotypes regarding “city people” and point to their humanity. For instance, Corrine’s feeling of vulnerability regarding her children – that she was tempting fate because she had struggled against nature to bear them (the product of her sister’s eggs and her husband’s sperm, carried in her womb) – is completely understandable.
At several points in the book he specifically mentions “the good life” and how it means different things to different people, but the whole novel is about what makes the good life. The characters have it, or what they believed it was when they were young – pursuing the literary life or the moneyed life, having a family – on September 10th, and then see everything brought into question by the terrible tragedy that befalls the city and takes away people they knew and loved.
What makes this book most interesting is the answer, at the very end, to the question of what makes the good life. It
is not about pursuit or money or fame, but about sacrifice for the ones we love. And that is a message that transcends class.