Bright lights, sad Apple

TWENTY-FIVE years, seven books, and three marriages since he came to New York, novelist Jay McInerney is still besotted with the city. You can see it on his face. Happily ensconced at a corner table at The Spotted Pig, a hip new downtown "gastro pub", the 51-year-old author displays none of the calculated reserve of a consummate Manhattan dweller.

He speaks loudly and gesticulates with such fervour one often has to duck to avoid a slap on the nose. "All the foodies come here," he explains, scanning the menu. "I think I just have to have the nudi."

Unabashed pursuit of pleasure is exactly what has made McInerney such an ideal chronicler of New York, in books from Bright Lights, Big City to Model Behaviour. For a while he dated models, partied at the right clubs, bought expensive art. "You know, a part of me really hopes the curse is over," he says, acknowledging that he hasn't lived this way for quite some time, "and that certain critics are just going to forgive me for what they perceive as my sins against good taste and discretion."

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Now might be the time for this reconciliation. McInerney's new novel, The Good Life, is indeed very good, but not because he has turned his back on the past. In fact, had McInerney not been such a faithful reporter of the city's habit for empty hedonism and the emotional hangover this created, it would be hard to appreciate the day all of this money worship and bustle came to a stop: 9/11.

"This is why I wanted to write this sooner rather than later," says McInerney, trying to explain the urgency of capturing this feeling. "It sounds terrible to say, it really was the best of times and the worst of times, and it did bring out something wonderful in people here. People really wanted to be their best selves."

This pretty much describes the cast of The Good Life, who come to this book with baggage from McInerney's sprawling 1992 novel, Brightness Falls. As that book left off, high-powered career couple Russ and Corrine Calloway had survived a temporary separation and paved over the cracks by having children. As The Good Life picks up, the Calloways remain together, but a nagging sense of drift has crept into their relationship.

Two new characters, Luke and Sasha McGavock, experience a similar sense of marital unease. Having opted for early retirement, Luke feels irrelevant and unmoored. Sasha, a charity worker, is more interested in cosying up to big fish than touching them for their money. Their languorous dance of boredom comes to a screeching halt on September 11, 2001, when Luke and Corrine meet by accident at a volunteer station and tumble headlong into an affair fuelled by fear, longing and dread.

A number of novels have used 9/11 as a backdrop, and most are attacked for exploiting it. McInerney disagrees. "I think it's outrageous for anyone to question the right of a novelist to try and make sense of and interpret this experience," he says, turning a shade or two redder. "For Christ's sake, is this somehow sacrosanct? Can we not write about 9/11? I think we must write about it."

For a while, McInerney was too paralysed to even try. In 2001, he had just come out of a divorce, a mid-life crisis, and an agonising case of writer's block. Things were just beginning to look up for him when the attacks hit. "I knew somebody who knew somebody - that started this thing," McInerney says, his voice dropping a respectable octave. "And he said, 'Go down there, they really need help.'" So he did, volunteering for several months, and writing several newspaper pieces about the experience which he says are "painful for me to read now".

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Not surprisingly, when he began talking about writing a novel about it, there were voices against. "Norman Mailer said to me at some point, 'Wait ten years. Don't write this now.'" Others looked on with wariness, even good friends. "I just read the new novel by Jay McInerney, who is a friend of mine," said Julian Barnes in a recent interview. "And I did so with great apprehension, because it takes place around the time of those attacks. But I thought he handled it beautifully since he comes at it from a bit of a side angle."

THE "SIDE" ANGLE is marriage and the relations between the sexes. Though he has three failed marriages behind him, McInerney remains wedded to being wedded, even in New York, a city he once wrote "eats marriages." "I still believe there is that final person for me," he says, without a trace of irony. "I am very much in love at this moment and really happy, so I don't rule it out at all. I think I probably should have waited longer in life to try it."

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McInerney can relate to people who woke on September 12 and decided now was the time to abandon their marriages. In fact, McInerney knew some of them. "They woke and thought, you know, if a plane hits the building, is this the person that I want to die with? And they discovered the answer is no." He adds, "Hey, I even know a guy who got a sex change operation. He decided to stop living the lie."

McInerney isn't about to make any such drastic change himself. His life is settled again after its recent quakes. His ex-wife has custody of his two kids, whom he sees on weekends, and tries to prevent from reading his books or Googling his name. "One did that recently and wound up with a gossip item about me dating two women at the same time," he says, rolling his eyes. They are also nearing the age where partying is a worry.

McInerney doesn't seem too concerned about that, though this wasn't always the case for dads of children growing up in the New York metropolitan area. "When I came to New York in 1980, the sense of danger was externalised," he says, almost growing nostalgic for a moment. "It was on the streets. Everyone I know except me was mugged, and on a regular basis. But I felt like we lost something when this city became so safe, and you couldn't locate the edge."

And then the mood expires and it's like a cloud has passed over McInerney's face. He knows a costly trade has been made, one his new book registers in the most subtle way. "It's funny, the fear has transmogrified into something else. Which is to say, now it's like going down into the subway is scary for a different reason - because, look. I can't believe it hasn't happened yet. I don't even want to say it... We used to pride ourselves on not registering sirens, backfires and stuff. Now I do. I see people. When a car backfires, they do this." He whips his head around. "We didn't use to do that."

The Good Life, Bloomsbury, 17.99