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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In The Good Life, Jay McInerney unveils a story of love, family, conflicting desires, and catastrophic loss in his most powerfully searing work thus far.Clinging to a semiprecarious existence in TriBeCa, Corrine and Russell Calloway have survived a separation and are wonderstruck by young twins whose provenance is nothing less than miraculous. Several miles uptown and perched near the top of the Upper East Side’s social register, Luke McGavock has postponed his accumulation of wealth in an attempt to recover the sense of purpose now lacking in a life that often gives him pause. But on a September morning, brightness falls horribly from the sky, and people worlds apart suddenly find themselves working side by side at the devastated site.Wise, surprising, and, ultimately, heart-stoppingly redemptive, The Good Life captures lives that allow us to see–through personal, social, and moral complexity–more clearly into the heart of things.

Excerpt

Summer used to be as endless as the ocean when she was a girl and her family rented the gray shingled cottage on Nantucket. Now, she found it hard to believe she was already back in Manhattan and the kids were in school and she was already racing home, late again, feeling guilty that she'd lingered over a drink with Casey Reynes. The kids had been home for hours after their first day in first grade, and she had yet to hear about it.

Women blamed themselves; men blamed anything but.

This was Corrine's interpretation of the guilt nipping at her high heels as she cantered up Hudson Street from the subway, passing the hand-lettered sign in the window of their Chinese takeout: FRESHLY GROUNDED COFFEE. Guilt about leaving the kids for so long, about not helping Russell with dinner, about attempting to restart her long-dormant professional life. Oh, to be grounded herself. Seven-fifteen by her watch. Still attuned to the languorous rhythm of the summer—they'd just closed up the house in Sagaponack four days ago—she'd barely had time to kiss the kids good-bye this morning and now the guests would be arriving at any minute, Russell frenzied with cooking and child care.

Bad mother, bad wife, bad hostess. Bad.

When she had yearned to be a mother, imagining what it would be like to be a parent, it had been easy to conjure the joy . . . the scenes of tenderness, the Pieta moments. What you don't picture are the guilt and the fear that take up residence at the front of your brain, like evil twins you didn't bargain for. Fear because you're always worried about what might go wrong, especially if your kids were born, as hers were, three months early. You can never forget the sight of them those first few days, intubated under glass, veined eggshell skulls and pink writhing limbs—the image stays with you even as they grow, reminding you of just how fragile these creatures are, how flimsy your own defenses. And guilt because you can never possibly do enough. There's never enough time. No matter how much love and attention you lavish on them, you're always afraid that it will never be enough.

Corrine had become a connoisseur of guilt; not for her the stabbing thrust of regret for an ill-conceived act—but, rather, the dull and steady throb of chronic guilt, even as she'd done her best to rearrange her life around her kids, quitting her job to take care of them and, over the past two years, working highly flexible hours on a screenplay and on a project that was the obverse of a busman's holiday—a start-up venture called Momtomtom.com, which had been on the verge of a big launch this past spring, when the Internet bubble started to deflate and the venture capital dried up. This afternoon, she'd spent four hours making a presentation to a possible backer, hustling for seed money for the Web site. As these prospects dimmed, she'd been trying to set up meetings on the screenplay, an adaptation of Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter. And here were the theoretical bookends of her existence, the maternal and the romantic—the latter submerged and almost extinct. In fact, that had been her secret intention in writing this script: to try to rekindle the romance and fan it back to life.

Corrine hadn't wanted to be one of those mothers who paid someone else to raise her kids; for the first five years, to the astonishment of her friends and former colleagues, she'd stayed at home. Manhattan was an existential town, in which identity was a function of professional accomplishment; only the very young and the very rich were permitted to be idle. The latter, like her friend Casey Reynes, had their charities and their personal assistants and inevitably managed to convey the impression that all this constituted an exhausting grind. Russell had initially supported her maternal ideal, though, as the years went by and their peers bought vacation homes in the Hamptons, he couldn't consistently disguise his resentment over their straitened finances, or his sense that his stay-at-home wife had become translucent, if not invisible, within the walls of their loft—a nanny without salary.

Writing a screenplay was, in their circle, code for being unemployed; finishing the first draft failed to produce the sense of accomplishment she'd expected. A screenplay, after all, was a kind of theoretical object, a recipe rather than the meal itself. And thus far she hadn't had much luck in assembling the ingredients. So when the kids entered preschool last year, she had tried to turn her obsession with child rearing into a profession—formalizing the body of knowledge she'd acquired as a full-time city mother into a viable on-line resource. If that plan didn't work out, she would have to return to the job marketplace, as much for her own self-esteem as to defray the $34,000 tuition fees for the kids.

A homeless man was encamped in the shadow of construction scaffolding across the street from her building—a rarer sight than it would have been ten years ago. A young, dirt-caked slacker with a ragged goatee, a bull terrier on a leash, and a paper coffee cup at his feet. As Corrine hurried past, he said, "Hey, beautiful. I need a blow job. I need a place in the Hamptons. I need a movie role."

She paused, registering the humor—and her husband would have loved this, storing it away with all the other anecdotes he used to illustrate his wife's hilarious singularity—but instead of laughing, she was thinking about needs. What we need in order to make life bearable.

Suddenly coming to her senses, the panhandler gaping at her.

"I need romance," said Corrine, dropping a dollar in the wishing well of his cup. "Whatever happened to the romance?"

She burst into her apartment, aching for her children, who over the course of the interminable afternoon might have died, dashed their heads against the edge of the coffee table she kept vowing to replace, been kidnapped, or forgotten her entirely. Corrine would have been less surprised at any of these scenarios than she was to see Hilary on the sofa, playing with the kids.

"Mom, guess what. You won't believe! Aunt Hilary's here."

Her daughter, Storey, loved to deliver news and make announcements.

It's true—she wouldn't believe. Last Corrine knew, her little sister had been in L.A. She'd tried calling as recently as last week, only to be told the number had been disconnected. And now here she was in TriBeCa, reclining on Corrine's couch with Jeremy in her lap. No matter that Corrine had seen her dozens of times in the intervening years: Hilary was preserved, in Corrine's mind, semifrozen at the age of fifteen, the last year they'd shared a domicile, so that it was always a surprise to see her as a woman, and a pretty convincing one at that. Only a few evanescent lines at the corners of her eyes hinted that she'd passed thirty a few years before.

The first thing Corrine did, pure reflex, was to scoop Jeremy up into her arms and hug him, but instead of clutching her, he squirmed.

"Hey, sis." Hilary rose from the couch, stretching lithe and catlike in her leopard top. As if to preserve Corrine's illusion of her youthfulness, she still moved and dressed like a teenager, and had the body to carry it off. "Thought I'd surprise you."

"I'm . . . I am." Corrine belatedly hugged her sister with the arm not holding Jeremy—a sister sandwich, with her son—their son?—in the middle. Surprised, yes, Corrine thought . . . although at some point unpredictability becomes a pattern. "You look . . . great," Corrine said.

"Thanks."

"Aunt Hilary's been in Paris," Storey said.

"Paris?"

Jeremy squirmed out of Corrine's grasp and dropped onto the ottoman.

"Well, actually I came from London today, but I've been in Paris for the past two weeks."

"She met Madeleine," Storey said, holding up her favorite book. "Can you believe it, Mom? Aunt Hilary knows her. Why didn't you tell us she knows Madeline?"

"I had no idea," Corrine said, casting a reproving glance at her sister. "Although, actually, now that I think about it, I'm not surprised at all. Your aunt Hilary knows just about everybody in the whole world."

"The whole world?"

"Your mom's just making a little joke."

It was true—you couldn't watch a movie or open a magazine without Hilary dropping intimate remarks about the two-dimensional icons therein. Why shouldn't she know Madeline?

"Aunt Hilary saw her at the Eiffel Tower with Miss Clavel and the other little girls."

"What's so great about Madeline?" Jeremy asked. "She's just a little girl."

Just like Hilary to tell Storey she was acquainted with a fictional character, fiction being her great specialty. Corrine didn't want Storey getting mocked for relating this triumph at school. She was feeling ambivalent enough about the Fluffies—the fairylike creatures that she had conjured up for the kids when they were three, who had their own biographies and their own little house in the kids' bedroom. They'd been through this once before when Hilary claimed to be great friends with Barbie—to whom she bore more than a passing resemblance.

"Corrine," Hilary said, "why are you looking at me that way?"

"What way?" Storey demanded. "What way is she looking at you? Mom, what does she mean?"

Jeremy was bouncing up and down on the sofa.

"Have you got a place to stay?"

"Collin has this loft in SoHo? But I have to call his neighbors for the keys. I think I may have the wrong number or something."

As if, Corrine thought, she was supposed to know who Collin was. Some fucking drug dealer, minor English aristocrat, or bass player, if experience was any guide. She gestured toward the couch. "You're welcome to the guest suite." Theirs was one of those old tunnel-style TriBeCa lofts, shaped like Manhattan itself, long and skinny, the most space they could find for the money back in 1990, when the area was still considered remote—an eighteen-by-eighty-foot rectangle with a single bathroom carved out of commercial space in the seventies. They'd walled off first one bedroom in the back and then another when the children were born, and kept telling themselves, as the years slipped past, that they'd probably move by the time the kids needed separate bedrooms. Which they did now. The experts said six was the age, but somehow all of the possible solutions seemed to require more cash than they commanded.

Russell was calling out from behind the kitchen counter. She wondered how he was taking this.

"Can Aunt Hilary give us our bath?" Storey asked. "Please please please."

"I suppose so," said Corrine.

"Race you to the bathroom," Storey told her brother.

"We will walk to the bathroom," Corrine said, grabbing hold of the back of Jeremy's shirt. Last week, he'd slipped and bruised his forehead—so Corrine reminded herself as she tried to justify the note of irritation in her voice.

Russell, meanwhile, was in his cooking frenzy in what they called the kitchen, retaining the nomenclature of residences with discrete rooms, flailing away with his ten-inch German chef's knife, juggling his beloved copper pots and French steel pans, which weighed as much as the unused dumbbells in the bedroom closet, the heft of which seemed to her to have as much to do with the macho aesthetics of amateur chefdom as with heat distribution. Cooking was a new sphere of masculine competition; Russell and Washington and his chef friend Carlo had lately taken to comparing notes on butchers and cutlery the way they used to deconstruct stereo equipment, garage bands, and young novelists. For fifteen years, Russell had been perfectly happy with their Calphalon pots, a wedding present from Macy's, until Washington told him the sous-chef at JoJo said they were for pussies.

She kissed him on the cheek."I promise I had no idea," she whispered. "I haven't spoken to her in weeks—months, probably. You're not furious, are you?"

"Don't worry, she exonerated you."

She put a finger to her lips. Russell seemed incapable of speaking at any volume but loud, a characteristic ill-suited to loft living.

"At least she didn't show up with some head-banger or felon in tow." She put her arms around her husband's ribs. "Is she going to spoil your perfect seating chart? I don't see how we can—"

"No big deal," Russell said, chopping away at a leek.

Corrine could hardly believe her ears. Russell was a maniac about his dinner parties. He was capable of throwing a tantrum if Corrine added someone at the last minute. It was one of the few areas of life in which he was prissy. When he put on his chef/host hat, everything had to be just so. Not to mention the fact that he'd grown tired of the saga of the prodigal sister-in-law, although he wouldn't admit it.

She shook her head. "You mean you won't have a heart attack if there's an uneven number at the table?"

"Actually, Salman canceled this afternoon. And then Jim called and said Cody Erhardt was in town and would I mind if he joined us."

Now she understood. "Did Salman have an excuse?"

"He's got a deadline and he leaves on his book tour tomorrow."

Corrine could tell he was disappointed, though he liked to act as if having Salman Rushdie over to dinner was no big deal. That was one of the things she hated about New York, how you were supposed to be cool and take for granted the awe-inspiring people and events you'd fantasized about back home in Altoona or Amherst. By the time you were behind the velvet ropes or sitting at the front booth, you were probably too jaded to admit how lucky you felt or to enjoy it the way you once imagined you would have.


From the Hardcover edition.
Jay McInerney|Author Q&A

About Jay McInerney

Jay McInerney - The Good Life

Photo © David Howells

Jay McInerney lives in Manhattan and Bridgehampton, New York. He writes a wine column for The Wall Street Journal and is a regular contributor to The Guardian and Corriere della Sera, and his fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, Playboy, Granta, and The Paris Review. In 2006, Time cited Bright Lights, Big City as one of nine generation-defining novels of the twentieth century, and The Good Life received the Prix Littéraire at the Deauville Film Festival in 2007. How It Ended: New and Collected Stories (2009) “reminds us,” Sam Tanenhaus wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “how impressively broad McInerney’s scope has been and how confidently he has ranged across wide swaths of our national experience.”

Jay McInerney is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (www.rhspeakers.com).

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Jay McInerney

What is The Good Life about for you?

The Good Life is first and foremost a love story. It’s about the way in which the collective trauma of 9/11 prompted many of us, especially those of us here in New York, to reevalute our lives, to reexamine our values, our careers, our marriages. And it’s about the difficulty of reinventing yourself in and changing course in midlife.

Has fatherhood changed your writing? Do you think you would have written The Good Life if you hadn’t had children?

Fatherhood has certainly reshaped my worldview and The Good Life would have been a very different book if I weren’t a father. Being a parent extends your temporal horizon in both directions: the future becomes far more tangible and important to you as the place your children and their children will inhabit; and the past becomes more vivid as well, since parenthood inevitably carries you back to reflect on your own childhood and the dynamics of your own interactions with your parents. The fact that the main characters are parents is central to the concerns and even the plot of The Good Life.

How has age affected your writing, and vice versa? Do you focus on different things now than you did earlier in your career? And has your experience as a novelist transformed the way you perceive the worldboth on a larger scale (e.g., 9/11 and its aftermath) and in the way individuals interact with each other?

Lately I have been thinking that The Good Life may be my first book about adults; after passing forty, I had to finally consider the fact that I couldn’t keep writing bildungsroman forever. Most of the protagonists of my previous novels, whatever their age, were in some sense post-adolescents, trying to reach an accommodation with the social order. The Good Life is about people who signed the social contract years ago; now they’re looking for loopholes.

It’s been suggested that The Good Life is “phase three” for youone being Bright Lights, Big City, and two being Brightness Falls. What do you make of this assessment?

I actually think of The Good Life as being the start of phase two, the second act that we American writers aren’t supposed to have. On the other hand, I do think that The Good Life is some sense a third or fourth installment—if you count my third novel Story of My Life—in my very quirky history of New York since the eighties.

How did you come to write The Good Life? What made you decide to revisit the characters from Brightness Falls?

I’d always wanted to return to the cast of characters in Brightness Falls. It's my favorite of my books. I really meant to do it sooner. And I expect to again. Most of my books have a fairly compressed time frame, and I was really eager to work with the element of time, the passage of years in the lives of my characters.

The Washington Post, among other publications, has called you “one of the solid chroniclers of his time.” Do you see your work this way? Is it something you set out to do when writing?

It’s always dangerous claiming to chronicle your time or your generation. But I like to think that my books collectively contain a very vivid and accurate portrait of life for a certain type of New Yorker of my generation.

All of us not directly affected by the attacks remember the compulsion to do something to ease the suffering of those who were. In your case, that meant volunteering at a soup kitchen for relief workers. What led you there, and how did your experiences at the site inspire or inform the book?

Like everyone I know in New York, as soon as the initial shock had worn off my impulse was to try to do something, to help out in some way, to do anything that would make myself somewhat useful and somewhat less helpless. A friend told me about a soup kitchen which had just started up at the edge of the site but access to downtown was severely restricted. But after a few drinks a few nights after the eleventh I just jumped on the number 6 train at midnight and popped up at Bowling Green and found the soup kitchen which at that point was just a tent and a coffee machine and some warming trays. And they were happy to have me. And I kept going back. The soup kitchen in the book is based on the one I worked at for six or seven weeks.

Portions of this novel are set in Tennessee, which in The Good Life seems a sort of antidote to the sense of dissolute chaos in New York. Would you agree with this observation, and does it reflect your own feelings about city and country life?

After 9/11 almost every New Yorker thought about their roots, about the precariousness and danger of urban life and by extension of the virtues of the rural life. Although I’m a Yankee I married into the Southern experience and my kids were born in Tennessee. I’ve always been fascinated by Southern literature and in fact some of the most interesting people I know in New York are expatriated Southerners. I have a kind of nostalgia for the kind of roots that real Southerners have—my own upbringing was too peripatetic to give me much of a feeling of roots. In the end, though, the experience of 9/11 made me feel more of a New Yorker than ever.

What is next for you?
Next for me a new novel. And I hope to God it will be easier and quicker to write than this one.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“A real love story . . . with a sympathy and depth new to McInerney’s fiction.” —The New York Times

“The Good Life
is McInerney’s most fully imagined novel as it is his most ambitious and elegiac.” —The New York Review of Books

“A triumph.”—The Village Voice

“McInerney at his narrative best.”—Chicago Sun-Times

  • The Good Life by Jay McInerney
  • April 24, 2007
  • Fiction - Literary; Fiction
  • Vintage
  • $15.00
  • 9780375725456

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