Of all the repellent interpretations of 9/11, Jay McInerney builds his new novel, The Good Life, a follow-up to 1992’s Brightness Falls, around one of the slimiest: Sept. 11 as soul-cleansing for privileged New Yorkers. The Good Life begins on Sept. 10, as Corrine Calloway and her philandering editor husband, Russell (we know he’s a rat because he buys pink Peruvian salt and wears a Chez Panisse apron), throw an artsy party in their Tribeca loft. Guests guzzle Italian wine and say things like ”I grew up in the era of the existential hero” and ”Jim believes in cutting back on necessities, but he can’t imagine drinking Moët.” Meanwhile, in another neighborhood and tax bracket, ex-banker Luke McGavock and his plasticky wife, Sasha (we know she’s a rat because she worries his hug will muss her hairdo), attend a glitzy fund-raiser with their 14-year-old daughter, Ashley, a Paris Hilton in training whom Sasha dresses in Gucci and seemingly plies with diet pills.
In these agreeably trashy early chapters, McInerney sketches a lurid cartoon of fin de siécle Manhattan decadence, a claustrophobic world of competitive sexuality, professional jockeying, and emotional malaise that will all change when the Twin Towers come down with a great, redemptive whoosh. Or at least that’s how Luke and Corrine experience the tragedy. (Others, like Sasha, are too jaded to relinquish their cycle of charity-benefit socializing, let alone change their lives.) As Luke stumbles away from the wreckage — he had been on his way to breakfast at Windows on the World — he encounters Corrine, who shares her bottle of Evian. He must have been really thirsty. ”It was like seeing Botticelli’s Venus in the Uffizi, like the reinvention of the world,” he gushes later to his mother.
Corrine soon persuades this handsome new acquaintance to volunteer with her at a soup kitchen for Ground Zero rescue workers. And it is here, among earthy cops and firefighters, that Corrine reintroduces Luke to the manna of the American good life: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. ”It had probably been twenty years — years of foie gras with poached pears, curry with mango chutney, and other culinary yin and yang, fat and sweet permutations — since Luke had actually bitten into a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.” Soon, he is appreciating not just PB&J but also — to his astonishment — Corrine. ”He’d imagined that many of the qualities that drew him toward her — intelligence, a sense of humor, shared values — would prevent him from seeing her as an object of sexual desire,” McInerney writes, without irony. ”Corrine seemed unselfish and morally taut, which Luke had imagined, when he first met her, might protect him from being fatally attracted to her.”
But, happily, Luke is soon enjoying exuberantly detailed sex — McInerney can’t hide his leering gusto for all things erotic — with his new mistress, that ”morally taut” married mother of twins. That’s probably an oxymoron, but Corrine is indeed an improvement over Sasha, and can’t we all breathe a little easier knowing that, if nothing else, 9/11 helped McInerney’s hero get it up for a nice woman?