Jay McInerney: Love among the ruins

Brat Packer Jay McInerney was the ultimate A-lister, at all the best parties, writing shiny, witty, coke-fuelled novels about Manhattan life. Christian House meets him in New York to find out whether he's still partying like it's 1989
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There's snow on Fifth Avenue. Snow, sleet, late shoppers and a disgruntled Jay McInerney. We meet in the lobby of his apartment block. The novelist's dry cleaning is missing, much to the consternation of his doorman, and he's heading out to Long Island that evening. That McInerney, one time wonder-boy of Manhattan's literary elite and famed womanising wild man, can have the same domestic concerns as the rest of us is comforting.

However, on entering his apartment I begin to wonder if the party has moved on. Or, at least, whether after two decades of notoriously bad behaviour, three wives and an Alpine piste of cocaine, a downsized lifestyle was on the cards. It's a modest but cosy den full of animal-skin rugs, mahogany furniture and silver photo frames. "It's my quiet, dark place. I'm a bit of a cave dweller by heritage," he acknowledges in a disarmingly sleepy drawl. He's endearingly proud of his "cave": "This is my Fitzgerald shelf here. First edition of The Great Gatsby, first edition of Tender is the Night...' He passes me a glass of pink champagne before settling into an armchair with a mug of tea.

In the late 1980s McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis and Tama Janowitz formed a triumvirate of Big Apple brats who were as famous for their nocturnal hedonism as their literary output. Over the past two decades McInerney's antics on the A-list party circuit have become the stuff of publishing legend and fodder for the city's gossip columns; as quintessentially New York as Dorothy Parker at the Algonquin or Dylan Thomas regaling fellow drinkers with tales of women and woe in the East Village's White Horse Tavern. As the merry-go-round span, many believed a glittering talent was being squandered right in front of them.

McInerney is now 51 with a weathered but boyish face, simultaneously cheeky and languid. It's been six years since his last book was published and over 20 since his first, Bright Lights, Big City, brought him fame, fortune and all the pleasures and pitfalls they present. His new novel, The Good Life, a tale of an extra-marital affair played out in the aftermath of 9/11 could have been designed specifically to hurl him back into the public gaze with an even higher profile. The Good Life is McInerney's most mature and finely structured novel since his debut, though its creation has been a long, hard struggle. "It's the most painful book I've written, like pulling teeth the whole way." And it coincided with a series of personal traumas. "I had a midlife crisis, I'd been divorced, I became clinically depressed. You know," he laughs, "the usual."

At the centre of the book lies the entwined fate of the Calloways and the McGavocks, two couples cocooned in the safe bubble of affluent metropolitan life. Corrine and Russell Calloway first appeared in Brightness Falls, his 1993 account of marital strife and disintegrating Wall Street careers. Ten years on and their relationship is still precarious. After the planes go into the twin towers, Corrine volunteers to work on a food stand at Ground Zero, feeding the workers searching the ruins for signs of life. There she meets Luke McGavock, and among the rubble the pair almost reluctantly fall in love. Geographical and personal horizons are suddenly altered.

It's a tricky premise to pull off, but McInerney has tempered his usual flamboyant style and played it relatively straight. "I couldn't rely on my stocks in trade anymore," he says. "I had to dial back the social satire. And the irony and the flashy wordplay. All of that seemed inappropriate." He returned to the advice meted out by Raymond Carver, his old lecturer at Syracuse University: "No tricks!"

The mayhem caused by the attacks is captured with subtlety: "Ash Wednesday. The debris - the paper and sooty dust - had surged up the avenues and stopped at Duane Street... a Black Mass version of the old ticker-tape parades of lower Broadway." This is matched by a measured approach to the love story. "I think about going away with you," confides Corrine. "Me too," replies Luke, to which Corrine observes "that this was one of the nicest phrases in the language: Me too."

McInerney admits that he knew that he'd be in for "some shit from some quarters". He is still rankled by a recent interviewer - "a kid" - who couldn't understand the novel's pivotal theme. "He said, I don't get it, you didn't lose your best friend so what's the big deal about 9/11? He didn't think that it was a life changing event," despairs McInerney.

Whether fiction is the right medium to capture monumental events has always been debated. "Ian McEwan wrote pretty eloquently that fiction was almost obscene for a while. And I think that's how we all felt. Anyone who had any sensitivity whatsoever," says McInerney. But he considers that the time is now right, even if others disagree. When he told Norman Mailer about the novel he was swiftly advised to wait 10 years.

It was partly the resilience of New York and its occupants that moved him to begin work on The Good Life. He could see that life would eventually resume its normal rhythms. "But you can look at that too and say what a shame," he says. "For a moment we had intimations of mortality, we had a sense of brotherly love, of civic spirit, of patriotism even. But of course most of us got over that one, that asshole who's our president sort of corrupted this for his own purposes." There was an opportunity to capture that blitz spirit.

McInerney watched the second plane hit from the window of his old flat in Chelsea and chose his current apartment, which is on a low floor, as a result of what he'd witnessed. "When 9/11 happened my first reaction was, Jesus, what took them so long?" he says. "The whole nature of this city, of this island experience, renders us hugely vulnerable, and renders it possible for our enemies to create chaos on a massive scale with relatively limited expenditure of energy. It's extraordinary to me that this hasn't happened before, that it hasn't happened more often and as a result I can't help wondering when it's going to happen next.

"There's a certain tincture of sadness and melancholy that we all carry around, this discontinuity in the history of the city. I also think that not very deep within us there's an anxiety. It used to be one of the conditions of life in New York city that you blocked out things like sirens, you became inured to the sounds and the chaos of the city. Now that's not the case. If we hear a bang or a plane we look up." There is, he asserts, a "relative fragility in the social contract" at present, one that manifests itself in the most simple, everyday events: "We all look at people in elevators more than we used to."

The New Yorkers of McInerney's fiction, he admits, live in a world of "glittering surfaces and high superficiality". But he looks cross when I suggest that this could make them appear repugnant in light of the cataclysmic events surrounding them in The Good Life. "Is somebody who drives a bus any deeper than somebody who happens to attend fashionable parties, and edits books or trades in international debt? I think you're demonstrating a kind of reverse snobbery here. I think it represents a kind of self-loathing on part of the culture-producing classes. Most of the people who write about how shallow my characters are rub shoulders with those very characters when they go out."

His characters remain acutely aware of "their own ridiculousness and tribal affiliations and patterns of consumptions". Almost as evidence of the same traits in their creator, he suddenly sits up and apologises; he has to call Bret Easton Ellis to arrange dinner. As he leaves his message I check out the view from his apartment, which faces into the building's womb-like courtyard, and in the white-flecked winter night it's easy to see it as a safe haven, an alternative to the exposed environments of the tall downtown blocks. He clicks the phone shut and I remark that Ellis's characters possess none of the discordant moral dilemmas that his struggle with. "His don't really, but I won't tell him that when I see him tonight," he smirks. "As writers, we're so different. His is a degree-zero, deadpan and very satiric sensibility and I'm in more of a romantic tradition. But I don't think he wants me writing like him anyway. And vice versa."

The pair are still good friends but the chasm between their work has widened. "It was really weird, I was in his book [Lunar Park] and it was like me frozen in time from 15 years ago. It was a little disturbing. I wanted to say, Jesus, Bret, you know, let's move on."

Moving on has been the one constant in McInerney's life. There's a lot of emotional wreckage left bobbing in the wake of his private life. "My wife ended up stealing all my papers and selling them to Cornell University," he confides. "The first I knew of it was when Cornell wrote to me and asked if I had any more material to give them. And I asked, what do you mean, more material?" It's difficult to keep up; is this his last wife? "No, that was my good wife," he laughs. "The bad one was the one who took my papers. And the first one was the one who just ran away as a model and never came back."

His romantic disasters are recounted with a mix of male bravado and regret. And many are far more significant than missing archives. That same "bad wife" attempted suicide when he started dating someone else (another model, of course). Nine months in a psychiatric ward ensued, a period he fictionalised in one of the short stories in the collection How It Ended. "Beautiful in her distress," he noted.

"I sometimes hear that I'm cynical, but I don't feel that at all. As a New Yorker I still really believe that something wonderful is going to happen to me tomorrow when I wake up and go out that door. I just fell in love and it feels like the first time," he says, rather improbably. "Every week in the city something happens that makes me really glad I live here. I feel very innocent in that way and I think that's an important quality if you're going to sit down and reinvent the world every two or three years." He laughs and adds: "Or in the case of this book, every six years."

Leaving him to his dinner with Bret and late trip upstate, as I find myself back on the frozen sidewalk, with the wind and yellow cabs barrelling down the Avenue, I'm reminded of the words of McInerney's literary idol, F Scott Fitzgerald. "So we beat on, boats against the current," he wrote. "Vitality shows in not only the ability to persist but the ability to start over." It's a sentiment that both McInerney and New York know only too well.

'The Good Life' by Jay McInerney is published by Bloomsbury (£17.99). To buy a copy for £16.99 (free p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897 or post your order to PO Box 60, Helston TR13 0TP