Another novelist might shy away from facing the horror of 9/11 head-on. Another novelist might turn to allegory or symbolism to describe that terrible time.
Not Jay McInerney. Not the man who has chronicled the well-heeled yet restless souls of New York since he made his stunning debut more than 20 years ago with “Bright Lights, Big City.”
“I’ve always written about the larger social events of the moment. It just seemed like I had to confront this one,” he says during an interview in his Greenwich Village apartment.
“My friend Candace Bushnell could ignore 9/11 for the rest of her writing life. That’s not meant to be a criticism of Candace, but the universe that she’s created is not necessarily one that needs to take that kind of event into account. I didn’t think I could ignore it.”
Ignore it he didn’t. For his first novel in six years, McInerney placed one of his heroes covered in ash atop a debris pile at ground zero, pulling out bodies hand-over-hand.
“The Good Life” is the story of how the emotions dredged up by the terror attacks change the priorities of two well-to-do married Manhattanites, leading to an illicit love affair near the carnage.
“Immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, my first thought was that I didn’t know if I could write fiction again,” McInerney says. “It just seemed irrelevant and foolish at that time. You know, made-up stories, imagined characters — it was hard to reconcile with the urgency of the moment and the rush of events.
“Later I thought, ’I’m a New York writer. I write about New York and this is the biggest thing that’s happened in my lifetime and probably in the history of the city unless you count the draft riots in 1863.”’
The 51-year-old writer is a bundle of nervous energy, sipping tea noisily and fidgeting in his chair. His bachelor apartment has a sunken living room, sleek modern furniture, abstract art and an animal skin rug by the doorway.
McInerney’s new book draws on his personal experience at ground zero. He handed out sandwiches to rescuers and solicited elaborate meals from chic restaurants such as Babo and Union Square Cafe.
“It made me feel less at loose ends and less useless,” he says. “Being a novelist seemed a really lame thing to be at that moment. One of my few skills is that I know a lot of restaurateurs.”
Writing about the event was the farthest thing from his mind at the time. “My first thought was, ’Jesus, Sept. 11 will capsize any novel.’ It’s sort of like throwing a giant, three-ton safe into a dinghy. It would just go right down.”
A new genreLater, he hit on a solution: Concentrate on the implications of that day — the trauma and grief, but also the time when everyone briefly became their best self and reordered priorities.
“The Good Life” joins other works grappling with the 2001 attacks, including Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” Ian McEwan’s “Saturday” and Art Spiegelman’s “In the Shadow of No Towers.”
While writing his own book, McInerney made a point of avoiding Foer’s novel until his own galleys were locked up. He then watched with some irritation as some critics received the younger man’s book coolly.
“I was a little bit indignant on his behalf when he was criticized for writing about 9/11. I just thought, ’This is outrageous.’ I mean, you can criticize specific instances of perceived exploitation or tastelessness — go ahead, make your case,” he says. “But I did read a few critics who did seem to question the right to take on the subject. And, obviously, I think that’s just outrageous.”
“Of course,” he adds. “I was terrified that it would somehow be THE definitive look at that time. I suppose there couldn’t be a definitive novel about that time and it’s so different from what I’m trying to do.”
McInerney’s book debuted on The New York Times’ list of best sellers at No. 16 and Knopf has ordered about 60,000 copies. Reviews have been mostly positive, with The New Yorker calling it “an intelligent venture in a tricky genre” and Publishers Weekly saying it is “tender and entertaining.”
Still, the Times criticized its “bizarre mix of the genuinely moving and the trashily facile” and Time magazine said his characters “while capable of surprising themselves and one another, never surprise us.”
Gary Fisketjon, McInerney’s editor and longtime friend, braced McInerney for tough reviews. “He is taking chances — the best writers always do,” says Fisketjon. “He really is playing for high stakes here and making it work.”
The 9/11 attacks came during a fallow period for McInerney, who was going through his third divorce and a bout of writer’s block, aggravated by the shock of what was happening to his city. By the time he returned to the keyboard, he had changed.
“I felt like I couldn’t use my old tone, and my old narrative tricks suddenly seemed unsuited to this material. Social satire and witty banter and elaborate wordplay didn’t seem appropriate to this time.
“As a writer, as in life, I’ve always been afraid of not amusing people. I’ve always tried, perhaps overly hard, to do so,” he says. “I had to really rethink my technique and my persona.”
McInerney’s persona emerged after 1984’s “Bright Lights, Big City,” the best-selling novel that explored the city’s disaffected, hedonistic youth and their fondness for controlled substances like Bolivian marching powder.
Though still in his 20s, McInerney was suddenly feted as literature’s newest brash voice, along with such stars as Brett Easton Ellis and Tom Wolfe. It promptly went to his head.
Brushes with fame's downsideAs famous as his book became, McInerney grew equally famous — becoming regular fodder in gossip columns for his encounters with drugs, alcohol and models. He struggled in his next five books to reclaim his early promise, with mixed results.
“Having that sort of overwhelming success with a first book, it’s disorientating. It’s also something that sets up the kind of expectations which are very difficult to fulfill,” he says.
These days, McInerney’s favorite haunt is not The Odeon — the chic TriBeCa eatery that became a cornerstone of his debut book. He now seems to prefer the older, yet no less fashionable, Gotham Bar & Grill in his neighborhood.
In a strange twist, there was brief talk after 9/11 of reworking the cover of “Bright Lights, Big City,” which features a drawing of a young man in a trench coat gazing at The Odeon with the twin towers hovering in the background, ablaze in lights.
McInerney squashed any idea of removing the towers. “It’s like the Kremlin erasing the people they’ve rubbed out over the years of Stalin’s rule,” he says. “They were there and they should be commemorated.”
For “The Good Life,” McInerney chose to revisit a couple he created in his 1992 novel, “Brightness Falls” — Corrine and Russell Calloway. “They were kind of waiting,” he says. “I always wanted to follow-up, find out what happened to them.”
What was happening was that their marriage was slowly coming undone, something the terror attacks instantly laid bare. At ground zero, Corrine meets another unhappy soul and love blooms.
Many people close to McInerney say the book is one of his most personal, drudging up the feelings of loss, insecurity and love among 40-somethings. His admirers include his latest former wife, Helen Bransford.
“She said, ’You finally did it. You finally dropped all your defenses. You were really honest, for a change. You really wrote about yourself,”’ he says. “Maybe that’s why it was so hard to write.
“I think there was a certain glib facility that I sometimes could find myself slipping into that I don’t want to return to. I’m older. I’m less cocky, less certain about what I know about the world than when I was 29.”