From the ashes

By MIKE MILIARD  |  February 22, 2006

Waiting nine months gave him time for reflection. And while his first draft was “much more diffuse, and much more heavily populated” with the firemen and cops so identified with 9/11, eventually McInerney decided to go with another writerly truism: write what you know. He resolved to focus on “the characters I’d always written about.”

Yes, even the moneyed haute-bourgeoisie of TriBeCa and the Upper East Side — “the type of New Yorkers Bostonians love to shake their fists at,” said Booksmith events director Mark Pearson as he introduced McInerney — are capable of having their worlds rocked to their foundations, and being remade by trauma. And McInerney resents that anyone might think otherwise.

“There’s a strain of self-loathing in the culture-producing classes that suggests that highly educated, upper-middle-class people are somehow less worthy of our sympathy and understanding than coal miners or firemen, and I just don’t necessarily believe that,” he says. “I don’t mean to say that these people are any better than anyone else, but I do sort of resent the implication that they’re less worthy of our scrutiny.”

And, not to put too fine a point on it, Jay McInerney is one of them. “I have to admit that I rub elbows with these people. My brother’s an investment banker. For better or worse, this is the world that I write about, and I think somebody should be.”

McInerney watched the Twin Towers fall from his 15th-floor apartment in Chelsea. He remembers trying to fix the window shade at about 8:45. “As I tinkered with the chain, somehow trying to get it back on its track, I briefly noted the fact that after four or five months in the apartment, I was already starting to take the view for granted,” he wrote in the Guardian.

Then he noticed something. “I saw a little flash of red on the Trade Center tower,” he says now. “And after a minute I sort of focused on it. It looked like the outline of a plane. I thought, That’s weird. But I guess I didn’t fully take it in at the time.” He did after a frantic phone call from an ex-girlfriend. Turning on the news, he glanced back and forth between the window and the TV. As the morning played out, “I stood transfixed there, for an hour and a half.”

Although he didn’t make the connection until a teary stranger reminded him later that day, the Twin Towers, those “forbidding and massive monoliths,” loomed above the nameless protagonist on the cover of Bright Lights, Big City.

After the dust had cleared, McInerney volunteered for six weeks at Ground Zero, working in a makeshift soup kitchen to provide food for rescue workers. “It was satisfying to have something to do. I’m kidding myself that it was really that helpful, but that was what I did,” he says. He worked at night. “On the one hand it was really eerie. It did feel like a mass grave. I’d never had such a sense of being around death as I did then. But it also felt — and this is a more difficult thing to describe — at that moment, Ground Zero was sort of psychically and spiritually at the center of everyone’s thoughts. And in a way, it was sort of comforting to be there.” It wasn’t long after the kitchen closed shop that he began to think he had a book to write. “I felt I’d seen some things that other people hadn’t seen.”

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