Out of the ashes

The Good Life

Jay McInerney <em>Bloomsbury, 354pp, £17.99</em>

ISBN 0747580901

Jay McInerney's writing has many defects. These have been extensively - you could almost say gleefully - catalogued by American reviewers of this book. There's the way his fiction often sounds like a stuck record. (How many novels about Manhattan's smart set has he written now?) There's the way he tends to veer between castigating his characters for their all-too-obvious failings and indulging them to the point of sycophancy. There's the fact that, although it may seem cool and attractive to write about the allure of fast living when you are in your twenties (as McInerney was when he wrote Bright Lights, Big City), to be doing so when you're 50 is, well, a bit sad. To these criticisms, I would add the fact that McInerney is, in both his fiction and his non-fiction, an incorrigible name-dropper; and one effect of this is to leave you in no doubt that, if he does tend to bang on about a certain kind of world, that is because it's a world with which he is exceedingly familiar.

In other words, it is easy to make the case for the prosecution. To my mind, however, making it in connection with McInerney's new book is unfair. The Good Life is not a great novel. It is not even McInerney's best. But it is a genuine and intelligent attempt to write about how life changed for New Yorkers after 11 September 2001. Some reviewers have implicitly criticised the author's decision to write about the attacks; and, in particular, his decision to use them as the backdrop to a love story - as if there were something inherently indecent about the juxtaposition of bodily fluids with smouldering flesh. But as McInerney pointed out in the Guardian a few months ago, he didn't really have any choice. New York is his subject. The destruction of the twin towers was the single most important event in the city's history. To have ignored it would have been perverse.

The Good Life opens on a scene that McInerney fans will instantly recognise. It is the day before the attacks. Corrine and Russell Calloway, the couple at the centre of a previous novel, Brightness Falls (1992), are holding a dinner party. The usual types are there: publishers, hip writers, film directors. Salman Rushdie, we learn, was going to come, but had to cancel at the last minute. All this ostentatious name-checking seems unnecessary, and a bit ridiculous - except that McInerney is being clever. In the wake of any catastrophe, it is natural for a process of collective stock-taking to occur, as the survivors reconsider their lives and question the values underpinning them. In this opening scene, McInerney is doing something similar in relation to his own fiction. We think we've been here before, that we know where we are heading - except that the next day happens, everything changes, and we find ourselves in a very different kind of book.

What kind? Well, for a start, one that offers a different version of "the good life" from the one posited by McInerney's previous work - one, that is, not defined by money, glamour and status. The day after the towers come down, Corrine runs into a man who has just emerged from Ground Zero, where he has been searching frantically for a friend. The man - Luke - turns out to be a married, middle-aged banker who has recently quit his job in order to try to write. Like Corrine, he had been feeling disillusioned with his life before the terrorists struck; now everything about it seems absurd.

They exchange numbers. She calls a few days later. He invites her to the soup kitchen where he is volunteering, pro- viding food for the emergency services. She goes there; they get to know each other; they fall in love.

Writing about love is a change of tack for McInerney - in the past, he has tended to dwell on love's failings, on what happens when people and things come apart. Corrine and Luke's affair is only one example of this new warmth in The Good Life. There are several (in fact too many) scenes detailing the bawdy, life-affirming banter of the volunteers at the soup kitchen. Luke's estrangement from his wife prompts their teenage daughter to overdose - but this proves the spur to a renewal of relations, and to Luke's reconsideration of his own troubled childhood. Not everything points to optimism and rebirth, however. By the end, normality is threatening to reassert itself. We are left uncertain as to who or what the good life is. Still, one thing is clear: it is not going back to how things were.