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McInerney Revealed In 'The Good Life'

Jay McInerney, author of "The Good Life"
CBS
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."

Later, 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."