Jay McInerney’s Good Life: The Odeon In Dust

I’m not sure why I like reading Jay McInerney. He’s a moderately popular novelist with a shallow intellectual range and a level-headed narrative tone, and yet I felt inexplicably excited to read his new The Good Life, which is about two married Manhattan couples before and after September 11, 2001. As I waded through the first chapters I wasn’t sure why I was reading it at all.

Most novels are about people with big problems, but a typical Jay McInerney character has far less problems than, say, me. The Good Life is about four New Yorkers with fabulous careers, trendy hobbies and great real estate. One couple has a treasured Tribeca loft and expects Salman Rushdie for dinner (he’s a no-show), and that’s the less wealthy pair. The display of vapid values, famous names and expensive logos in the first few chapters is almost over the top, and I nearly tossed the book aside in a pique of Marxist disgust at that point. But I decided to stick around, to see where Jay was going with all this.

In fact, McInerney knows how to engineer a story, and it was clear that these early displays of jaded prosperity were a setup for the obvious pivot. It’s September 10 2001, and a character steps out of a cab:

“… pausing to look up at the huge monoliths looming above her …”

Tribeca is only blocks away from the World Trade Center, and this neighborhood has been McInerney’s literary backyard since the young magazine yuppies of Bright Lights Big City snorted coke in the bathroom at Odeon. Now his characters are older and attending more sophisticated parties, and we leave one of them off at the dregs of an awful society ball on the evening of September 10. Then it’s September 12, and the same man wakes up outside, injured and caked in dust, desperately trying to dig a dead friend out of a mountain of burning rubble.

This is Luke, once an investment banker. He begins volunteering at a ground zero food relief station, along with Corinne, a modern downtown mother living inside a poundingly dull marital tableau. Luke and Corinne need each other, they fall together, and in the last few pages they blast back apart.

The ending is powerful, and justifies many flaws in the lazier pages that precede it. Overall, I enjoyed reading the book, but I am far from sure if it has what a book needs to be read by future generations or not. The writing is sometimes witty but never brilliant, and as always Jay McInerney’s literary influences seem to range all the way from Hemingway to Fitzgerald. A Good Life feels much of the time like a good article in a toney magazine. That’s what I didn’t like.

What I did like is the quiet conviction and honesty of the story, and the humanity McInerney invests in his characters. It’s hard to believe McInerney every wrote a book about yuppie coke fiends, because these characters are all paragons of responsibility and maturity (or three of the four main characters are, anyway, and the fourth, Luke’s rich bimbo wife, shows up mostly as a comic foil for the other three).

I also liked the truths revealed at the sad but uncertain ending. I was expecting a happier resolution, but I’d forgotten that McInerney’s favorite book is The Great Gatsby. Two boats against the current; two buildings down. A Good Life doesn’t fully justify itself until the ending of the love affair, which reveals itself as both surprising and inevitable.

Some other opinions on this book can be found here, here and here.

4 Responses

  1. I’m puzzled hereSounds
    I’m puzzled here

    Sounds interesting. I think if I were a reader, I’d read it for the story, based on your review. Intriguing, at least from a writing technique standpoint. But as I’m not a reader, I can only read for the writing (like Kerouac or Burrough’s stuff) which you don’t recommend in this case. Don’t think I could ever possibly read a toney magazine article; just isn’t that much time to be wasting of it. And have this abdominal aversion to anything Fitzgerald-like; is kinda morally repugnant, y’know, what with the drought in East Africa ‘n all. I mean, the others reviews tend to touch on this idea that one somehow didn’t “get it” until 9-11. That’s kinda like reaffirming Osama’s complaint, and that’s pretty gut-wrenching insulting, or what?

  2. Hi Stokey — well, I wouldn’t
    Hi Stokey — well, I wouldn’t say I don’t recommend McInerney as a writer. His phrasing is quite clever, the characters are vivid, the plot moves at a steady 45 mph.

    What I would say, though, is that he’s not a very experimental or innovative prose stylist (at least not anymore — in his earlier novels he tried). I also don’t think he’s much of an idea man. But he cares about his characters, and that shows through.

    I see your point about 9-11 and “not getting it”. I have no idea what McInerney’s response to your comment would be, and I’m guessing he wouldn’t have much of a response. This book has no political angle at all — it’s a portrait of a neighborhood in crisis, really, and a few characters who dwell there.

  3. You I’D’ed with the
    You I’D’ed with the characters

    I’m guessing you were in NYC during 9/11 and you’re the same age as the characters.

    As for McInerney, he wrote the screenplay for the film of his most popular book and I just watched the DVD again and it’s not too bad. If he could do the same for Ransom, it’d be a hit.

  4. You are correct, WW, about
    You are correct, WW, about the identification. “It’s a New York thing, you wouldn’t understand”.

    I can’t agree, though, that Bright Lights, Big City was a good movie. I just can’t agree with that.

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