While in Graham Greene’s novel the bathos of the hero’s predicament is given a certain gravitas by way of the author’s putative Roman Catholic faith, which condemns adulterers to hell and forbids divorce, in McInerney’s novel the lovers’ predicament seems less clear, for divorce has become a commonplace in their respective worlds (TriBeCa, Upper East Side) and theological constraints are unknown. In addition, both the lovers’ unworthy spouses have been unfaithful to them. McInerney would seem to recognize the risks in telling in such detail an utterly conventional Caucasian-heterosexual-adulterous love story set among middle-aged, privileged Manhattanites in and around the time of September 11: as the lover of a rich retired investment banker named Luke McGavock, Corrine is well aware of “the banality of the situation, the stiltedness of [the lovers’] exchange.”
An admirer of the prose of Graham Greene, notably The Heart of the Matter which she hopes to adapt into a screenplay for a high-quality independent film, Corrine finds herself enmeshed in a domestic narrative woven of clichés, as both the guilty adulterous wife (“You have to think about the children”) and the betrayed wife (whose callow husband has been “fucking some slut for two years”), doomed to trite, embarrassing situations, stale TV dialogue:
[Her husband’s] hangdog expression really pissed her off—as if he somehow thought he was the one who’d been trespassed against. “Just tell me one thing,” she said. “I want to know what she could possibly have that I don’t.” Aware, as soon as she said this, of what a cliché it was, how much she sounded like the victim in some horrible Lifetime movie.
Nor does her husband Russell reply in a way other than clichéd:
“Do you really want to know? Because she’s not you. She’s different. That’s all. Not better. Different. Because—maybe you’re right, maybe she is a slut. And you’re not. You’re my wife.”
Though McInerney speaks contemptuously of women’s television programming, the party scene in which Russell’s slut-lover, Trisha, brazenly outs him in front of Corrine and other guests is pure Sex and the City: “‘So, this is Corrine,’ [Trisha] said, smiling brightly, ‘who doesn’t give blow jobs.’” Mischievous Trisha has even brought along printed-out e-mail messages from Russell to read aloud to party guests: “My dearest Trisha. I can’t sleep thinking about you. Corrine is asleep in the other room and all I can think about is you on your knees…in a posture of worship and submission.” But where one of the spirited young women of Sex and the City would have thrown a drink into someone’s face and exited, Corrine simply casts her husband an “excoriating gaze” and flees the scene.
Corrine’s edgy relationship with her free-living, sexually promiscuous, and druggie younger sister Hilary, who comes to stay with her and her family, is the very stuff of TV sitcom until it’s revealed that Hilary is the surrogate mother of Corrine and Russell’s twin children, when the triangle, or quadrangle, would appear to be one suited for a TV movie-of-the-week: “Sometimes I’m terrified that [Hilary’s] going to want to claim [the children] one day.” (In fact, this soap-operaish subplot, dropped midway in the novel as if the author had lost interest in pursuing it, would have provided the novel with original and engaging material, based upon the detailed, informed passages involving the medical, physiological, and psychological mechanics of surrogate parenthood.) Hilary, the wild sister, is another Sex and the City clone, a campy Samantha who slips away from a dinner party for quick bathroom sex with a stranger after having announced, “Actually, I’m kind of taking some time off at the moment. I’m working on a novel.”
As Corrine is tagged as intellectual/ artistic by way of her interest in adapting Graham Greene for film, so her lover, Luke McGavock, isn’t just another rich, retired alpha male investment banker with a gorgeous socialite wife but, like every other person in Manhattan, Luke is writing a book: “I think it would be about the samurai film. I have hundreds of pages of notes.” Despite this endearing eccentricity, Luke is, frankly, a dreamboat: he is “tawny and leonine,” with a “rangy, athletic body”; he has a “taut, musky, yielding mound of muscle beneath his clavicle” against which Corrine curls, murmuring, “Sometimes I find myself thinking about how close you were to being in Windows on the World that morning.” More enigmatically:
…He was one of those men who redeemed the idea of the suit, which emphasized his masculinity even as it somehow underlined his superiority to the lumpish herd of the facelessly uniformed… She thought about all the other women who had looked at him in a suit—on the street, in conference rooms, across the lobby of a hotel in Paris or Hong Kong.
To be kissed by such a man is to know yourself “a princess awakened by a magical kiss”; it seems redundant to be informed that sex between Corrine and Luke is “fireworks.” Corrine’s guilt acquires a new dimension, what might be called a politically charged guilt, after sex with such a man:
“I must be morally defective,” Corrine said later, lying in the twisted quilt and playing with his penis as if it were her own new toy, even as she found herself weighing her guilt. “Here I am, wanting you to fuck me 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 [September 11] 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. Sending my children away. Running down to [a relief center near Ground Zero] every night, supposedly to perform works of charity but actually exploiting someone else’s tragedy.”
Unlike Scott Spencer’s more subtly textured A Ship Made of Paper (2003), a comic-sardonic tale of middle-aged adulterous lovers which The Good Life resembles, McInerney’s novel draws back from dealing with the consequences of erotic betrayal; in the novel’s curiously muted conclusion, the lovers’ relationship remains unacknowledged and ambiguous as if, put to the test in a public setting in which both their families are present, they aren’t really so much committed to each other after all: “What [Luke] would remember, picturing it again and again over the years, was Corrine’s stricken face turning away, like a door closing on the last of his youthful ideals and illusions.”
As The Good Life oscillates uneasily between a Graham Greeneian moral seriousness and the rowdy sitcom levity that comes more naturally to the author of Bright Lights, Big City, secondary characters fade in and out of focus; some, like sexy Hilary, are simply dropped while others, like Luke’s caricatured wife, Sasha, turn up at crucial moments in expedient roles. Sasha McGavock is, as we are told repeatedly, spectacularly beautiful, if shallow; she has “a kind of luminous presence” with the power to make other good-looking blondes look like Chinatown knockoff versions of “Upper East Side Barbie.” Renowned for her fashion sense and a perennial of New York’s Best Dressed list, Sasha is one of those “celebrated beauties”:
women for whom the drape of a garment and the shape of the eyebrow were subjects of advanced study, who submitted themselves not only to trainers, hairdressers, and stylists but even unto the scalpels of surgeons in pursuit of a feminine ideal that they, in turn, took their modest part in shaping after their pictures appeared in the party pages of Town & Country and W.
Observing Sasha being prepared by her makeup team for an important social occasion, Luke is reminded of Bismarck’s famous remark about law and sausages: “Feminine glamour was something you didn’t necessarily want to see being made.” But McInerney has too romantic a sensibility for memorable satire, which requires a kind of deranged genius, the scintillant misogyny of Jonathan Swift (“The Lady’s Dressing Room,” 1730) or the more genial misanthropy of Balzac; his satiric portraits are Tom Wolfe Lite, sketchy stereotypical figures to lend The Good Life the questionable flavor of a roman à clef:
…a tuxedoed Tupper Carlson, ruler of a downtown brokerage house and the president of the co-op, descending from the penthouse with his great blue heron of a wife, notable for her stick legs and prominent beak…. Her pencil-thin, sinewy arms and knotted hands were at odds with her taut glazed-porcelain face. Sixty-year-old arms and hands, forty-year-old face….
This regal couple always conveyed a certain irritation when forced to share the elevator, having largely insulated themselves from unexpected infusions of humanity with their chauffeur-driven cars, private jets, and private clubs….
Another broadly satiric portrait is the billionaire corporate raider and socially prominent philanthropist Bernie Melman, Sasha’s secret lover, who’d left in his professional wake an “army of disappointed investors and wrecked companies, [yet], unlike some of his peers, he’d never been indicted.” Once caricatured as a barbarian and a parvenu, the financial wizard Melman, with the unflagging energy of a Donald Trump, now enjoys social eminence and good press “as much from genuine admiration for his vast fortune as from fear of his power and influence, which now included certain branches of the media.” One of the undeveloped subplots of The Good Life involves the suspicion that Melman is having Luke followed by a surveillance team in an ominous black Suburban with tinted windows.
The Calloways’ social set, consisting mostly of people in the arts, evokes in the author an even milder satire: these are people who struggle to continue to live in Manhattan “on less than two hundred and fifty grand a year,” don’t ride in chauffeured limousines, and don’t own their apartments. In this world, for trendy men like Corrine’s husband, Russell, gourmet food preparation has become a “new sphere of masculine competition” involving “Sturm and Drang…angst and adrenaline.” Inviting celebrity guests like Salman Rushdie makes one vulnerable to the humiliating risk that they might cancel at the last minute, as the wily Rushdie does, perhaps sensing that he was in for a dismal evening at the Calloways when one of the female guests erupts into a drunken monologue to be expected in satiric novels of this sort or in plays influenced by Albee. Rushdie might also sense that his name, like the names of a number of other celebrities, is being exploited, in scenes that might have first appeared in The New York Times tongue-in-cheek “Boldface” column:
As they climbed the stairs of the town house—occupied by a prominent literary power couple, a writer and an editor whose enduring marriage was a source of wonder in the publishing world—Russell called Corrine’s attention to the lower door, just below street level.
“That’s Gay’s office,” he said. “He gets up every morning, dudes himself up in one of his bespoke suits, has breakfast, waves good-bye to Nan, puts a hat on his head, and a coat, depending on the season, then walks out this door and down the stairs to the lower door and into his office. A ritualistic preparation for his workday, a kind of symbolic commute.”
“That’s what you always say when we come here.”