From the ashes

By MIKE MILIARD  |  February 22, 2006

Familiar characters
EVEN MCINERNERY'S CHARACTERS are capable of having their worlds rocked to their foundations, and being remade by trauma.Corrine Calloway is McInerney’s favorite character. She’s one of his oldest, too, having first appeared in an Atlantic Monthlyshort story, “Smoke,” back in 1986. Most McInerney readers remember Corrine from his novel Brightness Falls (1992), which concerns the personal and financial travails of her and her husband, Russell, a downtown book editor. They’re the perfect couple, except when they’re not.

Since he knew Russell and Corrine well, McInerney figured they might be good characters through which to process his thoughts about those peculiar, otherworldly months after 9/11. (He’d been planning for a while to revisit them anyway. He had two novels in the works on September 10: one revisited Russell and Corinne in the ’90s; the other, incredibly, was a meditation on terrorism that opened with a bomb blast at a movie premiere. “History overtook my imagination,” he says.)

The Good Life’s plot is straightforward. Russell and Corinne — nine years older, living in a rented TriBeCa loft with a set of young twins and less money than they’d like, aren’t unhappy, exactly, but their marriage has seen better days. Same goes for multi-multi-millionaire Luke McGavock — an erstwhile corporate raider who’s taken himself out of the high-stakes-finance game to scratch desultorily at a book and be a father to a teenage daughter who doesn’t seem to need him — and his socialite wife Sasha. For both couples, life is satisfactory. Passable. But missing something.

Then it happens. Like a bolt from the blue, brightness falls. In the days following 9/11 Corrine volunteers at a soup kitchen at Ground Zero. So does Luke. And over the ensuing months, the day that “changed everything” does just that. Priorities are reconsidered. Selves are reinvented. But can it last? And what is “the good life”?

That’s the central concern of McInerney’s novel. That’s why it begins on September 10 and picks back up again on “Ash Wednesday,” September 12. Why labor over the charged imagery of those planes erupting into fireballs? Why bother imposing an authorial voice on something so deeply felt by everyone anyway? “Everybody in the world had their own experiences of that day, and I didn’t want to have the actual day, the event itself, overwhelming the novel,” McInerney says.

He saves his near-poetic descriptive flair for the aftermath, masterfully evoking those strange, fearful days that really do seem so long ago. “Staggering up West Broadway, coated head to foot in dun ash, he looked like a statue commemorating some ancient victory, or, more likely, some noble defeat — a Confederate general, perhaps,” McInerney writes. “Yesterday morning, and well into the afternoon, thousands had made this same march up West Broadway, fleeing the tilted plume of smoke, covered in the same gray ash, slogging through it as the cerulean sky rained paper down on them — a Black Mass version of the old ticker-tape parades of lower Broadway.”

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