It’s in this eldritch and ethereal otherworld that Luke and Corrine first meet, and as they enact their courtship in the ensuing weeks, McInerney’s keen eye for Zeitgeist detail — the Cipro prescriptions, the Strokes, the baleful e-mail forwards of Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” and Yeats’s “The Second Coming” — and his generous, empathetic feel for the realities of the human heart, make for a love story that’s simultaneously real and surreal.
“It was an extraordinary state of mind,” he says of that fall. “A heightened sense of awareness. Some of it was dreadful: the heightened anxiety, the anthrax in your mailbox, the bomb scares. And then the anger and grief people felt, the nightmare we all had. That was the bad part. But the good part was that people got in touch for a while with their better selves There was an extraordinary outpouring of charity. The city that’s famous for being selfish and jaded, and thinking that identifying with their fellow citizens is something that rubes from other places do, suddenly we were comforting each other on the street and helping strangers, and having a sense of pride in being New Yorkers. It was an amazing thing, and I don’t think I’ll ever see anything like it again in my lifetime.”
While The Good Life is unmistakably of and about a very specific time and place, the themes it explores are universal: “Love, marriage, fidelity, children — all those things that 19th-century books were about.” In fact, says McInerney, one reason the book is appearing now, nearly five years after 9/11, is that its writing was tantamount to “an elaborate, three-and-a-half-year therapy session.”
The self-confessed “serial monogamist” has had an undulant and well-documented personal life. He’s been married three times, and has had a string of serious relationships besides. (In the midst of his book reading, his cell phone rang. After checking the caller ID, he looks at the audience and grins. “Ex-wife.”)
“Emotionally, the book was hugely biographical,” he says. “I’d been through the throes of the end of a marriage right before 9/11, and I’d become a father before that. All my feelings about that are processed, somehow, in this book.”
The deflating reality of The Good Life is its recognition of the fact that that supercharged time of hyper self-consciousness — a time of empathy and charity and “terror sex,” shot through with a curious strain of exhilaration, the thrill of being alive in the face of so much death — didn’t last. It couldn’t. “Already that time seems far away,” McInerney says. “Eventually, some sense of reality returned and the rhythms of daily life re-established themselves. We didn’t all become our best selves forever.”
But for McInerney, some improvements have taken hold. He’s in a happy and stable relationship. (Again.) He’s kicked cocaine. The only cigarettes he smokes are puffed quickly and surreptitiously on the sidewalk, with a fear that his kids will find out. At age 51, Jay McInerney has grown up.
“Nine-eleven finally consolidated some changes that I had been moving toward anyway,” he says. “There came a point, when I was about 40, I had kids, and I was technically an adult. I had to try to grow into that. Nine-eleven helped to complete the process. It was a punctuation mark on the first part of my life.”