The horrors of the Upper East Side
D. J. Taylor
THE GOOD LIFE by Jay McInerney Bloomsbury, £17.99, pp. 354, ISBN 0747580901 ✆ £14.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 Looking back at the reviews of his first novel, Afternoon Men, from the vantage point of disinterested old age, Anthony Powell noted that adverse criticism tended to be moral rather than literary, or rather moral masquerading as literary. The stiffer kind of 1930s bookman did not believe that the louche and dissipated dead-beats described in Powell’s pages could actually exist. If they did exist, on the other hand, it was yet more deplorable that people should be writing novels about them. Having put down The Good Life, whose title is presumably ironic, I felt much the same about Jay McInerney’s collection of Manhattan partyplanners.
How do you approach a novel whose characters — even the ones with whom you are supposed to sympathise — are so unremittingly horrible? Naturally, writers are at liberty to write about any person or subject they like, even the New York style queens who inform their husbands, ‘You’re not really rich until you have a jet’ or the adulterous book editors grimly sodomising their PAs. The problem, in a work aiming to demonstrate the transformations wrought on individual lives by trauma, is the nature of the material being transformed. A Manhattan sophisticate, you imagine, just goes on being a Manhattan sophisticate, which may, in the end, be McInerney’s point.
One or two feisty minor parts excepted, the principal actors in this extramarital drama are a pair of youngish middle-aged couples: Luke and Sasha McGavock, and Corinne and Russell Calloway. Experienced McInerney-watchers will remember their earlier incarnations in Brightness Falls. Investment banker Luke, having made more money than he knows what to do with, has retired from the fiscal treadmill to cultivate the life of the mind; his ghastly consort (‘she had a kind of luminous presence which made the other blonde at the table look like the Chinatown knockoff version of Upper East Side Barbie’) is eyeing up a dodgy plutocrat named Bernard Melman. The Calloways, much less moneyed and affairé, have relationship problems of their own. These are exacerbated when, in the aftermath of 9/11, Corinne and Luke are brought together in the management of a downtown soup kitchen.
Like practically every other anatomist of the big American city, McInerney specialises in the wisecrack. Set him down at a dinner table, a high-rise party or even in the back seat of a car and the atmosphere fairly zings with punitive banter. True to form, The Good Life has two or three wonderful scenes — Luke and Sasha visiting the clinic which harbours their overdosing teenage daughter, Russell’s ex-mistress arriving unexpectedly at a party, where all manner of cats leap vengefully out of the upturned sack. Luke and Corinne, alternatively, en vacance in autumnal Nantucket, can only trade breast-beating schmaltz. ‘I must be morally deficient’, Corinne announces.
Here I am wanting to fuck you again, when bombs are raining down on some poor villagers on the other side of the world. I’ve been reading about how we’re all supposed to be ennobled by this terrible thing that’s happened, but in the last two months I’ve started cheating on my husband, lying and scheming in pursuit of my own selfish pleasure.
It doesn’t last. Elsewhere vast stretches of the novel function as a not-so-rough guide to the Upper East Side, its fawning maitre d’s and its sleekly refurbished interiors. Almost as tiresome are the guest appearances. Just as McInerney had a walk-on in Brett Easton Ellis’s last one, Lunar Park, so here Salman Rushdie skips a dinner date and Sasha gets spotted in a bar with Courtney Love and ‘that English artist Damien Hirst’. Beneath the up-market product placement runs a genuine lament about the kind of world the characters inhabit (‘She’ll be getting the same message from the culture in Tennessee or Alaska.’ Luke reflects of his daughter. ‘Live to spend, dress to kill, shop and fuck your way to happiness’), intermittently compromised by McInerney’s rapt imbrication in his milieu. He may not like all this conspicuous consumption and society tree-climbing, you feel, but he’s still intending to stick around. ‘The type of American novelist to whom English readers instinctively respond,’ some encomiast has suggested on the jacket. Not this one, alas.