Love and society among the ashes of Manhattan

How shook up were they? Jay McInerney imagines New York's elite in the aftermath of 9/11.

Say what you will about Corrine Calloway and Luke McGavock, they don't meet cute. He's covered in ash; she gives him a bottle of water. The circumstances are fairly memorable, however: It's Sept. 12, 2001, in downtown Manhattan, and Luke had been late for a breakfast meeting at Windows on the World.

Jay McInerney explores how their lives and their families are altered by the attacks on the World Trade Center in his new novel The Good Life.

Corrine and her husband, Russell, (characters from McInerney's 1992 novel "Brightness Falls") are among those pitiful Manhattanites "trying to subsist on less than $250,000 a year." (Let us have a moment of silence for these hardy souls.) They are parents of 6-year-old twins, conceived with the help of Corrine's younger sister, in a subplot to nowhere.

Luke and his wife, Sasha, a social piranha, are further up the food chain. Luke had been questioning his life even before the terrorist attacks - quitting his job as a financier and trying to be a full-time father and husband, to the dismay of his appalled wife and daughter.

In the aftermath of the attacks, Corrine and Luke become volunteers at a soup kitchen feeding the rescue workers, and - shockingly - fall in love.

McInerney invokes Graham Greene's "The Heart of the Matter" (Corrine is working on a screenplay), in which a middle-aged man, living in Sierra Leone during World War II, is torn by an affair.

But unlike Greene's finely tuned Roman Catholicism, McInerney is blithely tone-deaf regarding conventions of morality. Luke goes on (and on) about Corrine's "morally taut" nature, with McInerney apparently never realizing that if someone is conducting an adulterous affair (not her first), her conscience has already lost a certain amount of muscle tone.

While he's still prone to pointless name-dropping and careless errors (such as messing up the title of Simon and Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair"), McInerney gets off lots of well-timed zingers.

For example, Corrine gets to volunteer only because she knows the right people; another woman complains that supermodels and celebrities have taken all the slots at the "good" soup kitchens.

Then there's the Condé Nast ad executive who must show the National Guard her Prozac prescription to get back home. "It was the only thing in her purse that actually had our address on it."

Russell's good friend is in straitened financial circumstances, but brings Cristal to a party. "Jim believes in cutting back on the necessities," says his wife, "but he can't imagine drinking Moët."

And McInerney has a reporter's eye for details that bring back the fall of 2001 - whether it's New Yorkers comparison shopping for gas masks (the Israelis make the best), or a cop realizing that even though he doesn't want to, he'll have to retire this year. Pensions are based on the last year's take-home pay, and he'll never come close to matching the overtime again.

Then there's the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. In her role as well-coiffed yet down-to-earth everywoman, Corrine hands one to Russell, sparking a four-page discussion in which McInerney is clearly hoping to channel Marcel Proust and his madeleine.

"It had probably been twenty years - years of foie gras with poached pears, curry with mango chutney ... since Luke had actually bitten into a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Corrine had thrust one at him, and he was astonished by the sweet, acidic lash of the grape jelly, the gluey peanut butter sticking to the roof of his mouth, the host of emotions and memories this now called up."

The PB&J ode marks the beginning of their romance, and the novel's slow capsizing. At times, the prose gets so overheated that McInerney might just as well have made Luke a hot fireman and been done with it.

Corrine is prone to saying things like, "Do you think we'll ever feel guilty that if this terrible thing hadn't happened, we never would've met? I mean, what if some supremely powerful being came to you and said that you could wave your hand and everything would be as it was on September 10. What would you say?"

Luke's reply? "I guess I'm glad I'll never be faced with that dilemma."

Ah, yes, 3,000 lives versus a middle-aged fling. Move over, Sophie, we've got a real heartbreaker here. ("What an absurd thing it was to expect happiness in a world so full of misery," sobs the main character in "The Heart of the Matter.")

What's both endearing and flawed about McInerney's characters is that it never occurs to them that they're entitled to anything less.

Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.

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