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Seeking 'The Good Life' in Post-9/11 New York

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, forced many Americans to reshape their lives. For New Yorkers whose plans and priorities were cast loose, the shocking losses were followed by a challenge: what to do next. That dilemma is at the heart of Jay McInerney's The Good Life.


Other segments from the episode on February 6, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 6, 2006: Interview with Jay McInerney; Review of The Strokes' third album, "First impressions of earth."


DATE February 6, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Jay McInerney discusses his life, career and new book,
"The Good Life"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

After September 11th, novelist Jay McInerney felt that fiction had lost its
power and relevance. Then he gave up on the novel he was writing.
Eventually, he went back to fiction and started a new book. That book has
just been published. It's called "The Good Life," and September 11th plays a
prominent part in it. Set in Manhattan, the novel is about two couples who
appear to be at dead ends in their marriages. As the saying goes, September
11th changed everything. The novel follows these characters as they
re-evaluate their lives, try to make some major changes and face the

Jay McInerney first became known for his 1984 novel, "Bright Lights, Big
City," about a young magazine fact checker who gets caught up in the club
scene and cocaine.

Let's start with a reading from "The Good Life." It's the Sunday after
September 11th. Luke is about to sit down with his wife and teenage daughter
for their traditional Sunday meal of takeout food.

Mr. JAY McINERNEY: (Reading) "With his body clock so out of whack, downtown
in flames, the schedule of office life now a receding memory, Luke didn't
think he would notice Sunday as such, didn't think he would feel the usual
suck of low-grade depression. Hard to believe that the rhythms of the week
could be so internalized that this particular Sunday would register as
anything except the fifth day of an entirely new calendar.

Perhaps the muted feeling of let-down had as much to do with his sense of
receding crisis as when a few days after the funeral of a loved one the
narcotic of shock wears off and the sense of surviving from moment to moment
gives way to the realization that you will simply have to carry on with the
routines of daily life as if nothing had happened.

He knew he was lucky to be alive, but he felt distinctly unworthy of this
gift. These last few days, instead of light and blessed and spared, he had
been feeling borne down by the burden of it as the roll call of the noble,
hapless victims unscrolled on television and in the papers. He had been
scared senseless most of the hours he had spent downtown and haunted by
nightmares ever since, but he felt so utterly useless up here on 77th Street
that he now wished he'd stayed, as if he belonged somewhere, even inside that
toxic cloud behind the blue police barriers, a feeling that he hadn't had in a
long time since he had become bored with his job and disaffected with his

GROSS: That's Jay McInerney reading from his new novel, "The Good Life."

Jay, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

Mr. McINERNEY: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Your novel is about how September 11 does and doesn't change the lives
of your characters. And it's also about how they do and don't want September
11th to change their lives. Why did you want to write about that aspect of

Mr. McINERNEY: Well, it seemed to me, first of all, that, you know, those of
us in New York in particular had experienced something extraordinary,
something presumably life-transforming. And, at first, I think my response
was to feel that fiction was almost impossible, that it was irrelevant and it
was frivolous. You know, I think that in the immediate aftermath of the
event, I couldn't imagine writing fiction, writing a novel. Finally, six,
nine months later, as the feelings of that moment really began to recede, it
seemed to me that something extraordinary had happened and that it was well
worth trying to record. And I think one of the things that happened was that
many, many people in New York, many of my friends, acquaintances, certainly in
the wake of that event, imagined--or tried to imagine new lives or
re-evaluated certainly their old lives. I think we were all re-evaluating.
And certainly for a moment, transformation seemed possible.

GROSS: Possible.

Mr. McINERNEY: Possible, well...

GROSS: But not necessarily--I mean, your novel examines the possibility and
then, well, what happens with that possibility. How possible is the

Mr. McINERNEY: Well, change is difficult, but I think that--I really do
believe that many people incrementally change their lives, that they were
nudged towards slightly higher state of awareness. And even if that awareness
receded, even if the changes were somewhat rolled back over time, I do believe
that a lot of us will never be quite the same.

GROSS: One of the things you were up against as a novelist was writing about
an experience that has already been so well-recorded, you know?

Mr. McINERNEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What happened September 11th, what Manhattan looked like after
September 11th, how it changed a lot of lives.

Mr. McINERNEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: There has been magazine and newspaper articles and TV news reports and
documentaries and so on. Did you ask yourself, `What can I add...'

Mr. McINERNEY: Yeah.

GROSS: ` an event that has already been so well-chronicled?'

Mr. McINERNEY: I did. And, in fact, almost every day that I was writing
this book, I decided that I had taken on a foolish and hopeless task, and I
berated myself constantly, even as I pressed forward. At the same time, I
felt that I had been there. And, in fact, I worked at a soup kitchen at
Ground Zero for almost two months. I felt that I had a perspective that was,
if not unique, that was vivid and powerful enough that it might, you know,
might add to the sum of the record of that time, I guess. I also felt that,
you know, for all of the millions of words that had been spent on this, all of
the newspaper columns and the magazine covers and the broadcast coverage, that
it seemed to me that none of this really stuck in the mind, that no one had
sort of really created a narrative, a sort of coherent story that really
captured that moment, and that it was like a thousand details floating like
the--floating almost like the paper that rained down on us from the towers
that day. And it seemed to me that there was room for a narrative like that.

GROSS: Your new novel "The Good Life" centers around two different couples.

Mr. McINERNEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: One thing they have in common is that their marriage has started to
chill. Neither of the couples make love much anymore. And after September
11th, the wife from one couple and the husband from another couple accidently
meet near Ground Zero, and they feel this great connection to each other.
They have an affair with each other, and it seems to be, on both of their
parts, a deeply felt love. As a writer, you have to decide is this the big
change that they're going to follow through on after September 11th? Are they
going to end their marriages, uproot their children's lives and pursue a
permanent relationship? Or will this affair end?

Can you talk a little bit about how you decided what kind of fate to give this
romance that you started up, and why? I mean, because in so many stories,
romance is the bottom line, you know? Victory means romance conquers all,
romance wins.

Mr. McINERNEY: Well, I would like to think that I haven't closed the door in
this book on romance conquering all, but I think that it would have been far
too simplistic to wrap it up in a bow at this particular point. I also
think--I don't know, I don't want to belabor this point, but I think that
there was, you know, I think that there's something to my mind somewhat
metaphoric about their romance. And, in fact, this book is really about that
extraordinary heightened state of consciousness that so many people experience
in the aftermath of 9/11. And, of course, love is a heightened state of
consciousness. And that sense of heightened awareness ultimately faded. And
I think, I don't know, I think that I saw the romance as a sort of intricately
entwined with the mood of that time.

GROSS: These two people who fall in love, they are both working at Ground
Zero, helping to give food to the firemen and the police there. Is that the
kind of work you did at Ground Zero after September 11th?

Mr. McINERNEY: Yeah. Yeah. Very, very simple and basic stuff.

I, you know, made coffee, made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And I went
uptown and solicited donations from restaurants. I have a lot of friends in
the restaurant business, and I would get, you know, 50 rigatoni dinners here
and 50 burgers there and bring them downtown for the rescue workers, firemen,
the policemen, the iron workers.

It was interesting, though, that everybody at that--you know, the most popular
stuff at that time seemed to be the comfort food, the stuff that we associated
with childhood, the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and chicken noodle soup
was--those were undoubtedly the two favorite dishes down there. You know--I
mean, I was kind of knocking myself out to provide, you know, some real
gourmet fare from uptown restaurants and a lot of times it was, you know, the
peanut butter and jelly, and ham and cheese sandwich that went first.

GROSS: The characters in your novel are, for the most part, pretty wealthy,
very well-connected to either the fashion world or the literary world. I
mean, one of the couples is probably living a little above their means.

Mr. McINERNEY: Yeah, absolutely.

GROSS: Yeah. But these are people who are really well-connected. They know
all the writer, celebrities.

Mr. McINERNEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: They know a lot of the big directors. And one of the couples, they
really know the fashion world. And it seems to be a world that you like to
chronicle in your books.

Mr. McINERNEY: Yeah.

GROSS: And there's a lot of people who dismiss that and say, `Oh, Jay
McInerney, he writes about the people who are rich and privileged, the
beautiful people. Who cares about that? And that's a sign of his character
defect as a writer.'

Mr. McINERNEY: Mm-hmm. Not true.

GROSS: `Because he writes about people who are unworthy.'

Mr. McINERNEY: Uh-huh.

GROSS: So I'd like to hear your answer to that.

Mr. McINERNEY: Yeah.

GROSS: You know, when people like dismiss your characters because they are
from a privileged or at least a relatively privileged world.

Mr. McINERNEY: Yeah, well, first of all, I have to say that, you know, the
main characters in this novel--as in my 1992 novel "Brightness Falls," which
is where they first make their appearance--are members of the
culture-producing class. Russell Calloway is a book editor, and he's not a
very highly paid professional, I hasten to add. His wife is an aspiring
screenwriter, essentially, not a successful screenwriter. And Russell is a
member of, you know, the New York chattering class. But I think that because
he's highly educated, because he is highly literate, as is his wife, these
people to me are--they are not shallow people. They may--you know, they may
be superficial in certain ways, as we all are. But they are highly
self-conscious reflective individuals living at this sort of pinnacle of
civilization. Luke McGavock, the other protagonist in the novel, is a retired
investment banker. I'm personally very interested in someone who was in
a--you know, basically working at the center of the economic engine that
drives New York and the nation, for that matter, who powers the machine that
drives the rest of the city, really. I mean, all of the cultural of the art,
all of the night life that we have in New York actually is sort of financed by
Wall Street in a sense. And so I have to say I find these characters
eminently interesting, eminently complex. And, you know, I have to say, they
are my friends and neighbors. This is the world I live in, and this is the
world I've chosen to chronicle.

GROSS: And literally, in a way, that some of them are your friends and
neighbors. I mean, you mention a lot of people you know by name in the book:
Salman Rushdie, Paul Auster. I don't know if you know Martha Stewart
personally, but she is in the book, too, in a little cameo.

Mr. McINERNEY: Which I had forgotten Martha is in there. OK.

GROSS: Yeah, so is this a good thing or a bad thing for the people you know?
Are they glad to be cameos in your book? Or do you ever say something that
gets you into trouble? For instance, like the woman who is the aspiring
screenwriter says, `I just told Paul Auster that he needs to focus more on
plots, that he should read'--I forget who she recommends that he read...

Mr. McINERNEY: I think John Grisham.

GROSS: ...but so he has a finer sense of plotting. John Grisham, yes,
exactly. So, you know, I don't know if Paul Auster would be thrilled to read

Mr. McINERNEY: Well, it certainly doesn't reflect badly on him. I think...

GROSS: It does on her?

Mr. McINERNEY: Well, you know, I'm sure that Paul has heard this kind of
drivel before, as I have, so, you know, it's more a reflection on his
interlocutor than it is on him.

Well, you know, again, I would hasten to add that, you know, Russell is an
editor and a publisher, and this is the world he lives in. And it seems to me
that, you know, there's this certain amount of veracity here, a certain amount
of locating the reader. And it's important, I think, when writing about the
city, when we're writing about contemporary life, to somehow define your
fictional universe and its relations to the real New York City, which is, you
know, chronicled in the Times and the Post every day and that we're all
walking around in. And, you know, that's my way of situating us.

GROSS: I want to read something that Louis Menand wrote in The New Yorker in
a review of your book.

Mr. McINERNEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: He said, `It's a feature of the characters in McInerney's novel that
they see themselves as characters in a McInerney novel. This makes them
depressed. Corrine knows that being a downtown mom trying to resuscitate her
career by writing or pretending to write a screenplay is a cliche. Luke knows
that all ex-investment bankers are supposed to be idly pursuing some
sophomoric project in the name of personal growth. This character is actually
writing about Samurai films, which he loves.'

Mr. McINERNEY: Right. Right.

GROSS: And Menand says, `These characters are all in a bubble and they feel
it, but they can't get out. It is this noble but futile resistance to the
types in which they have been cast that earns them their creator's affection.'

And part of what he is saying here--and I think this is really true--that the
characters examine their own lives and they say, `I'm a cliche.'

Mr. McINERNEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You know, `What I'm doing now is like a cliche.' But it is what
they're doing.

Mr. McINERNEY: It is. But I think...

GROSS: So what happens when--yeah.

Mr. McINERNEY: That's only because they are more self-aware than most people
walking around on the street. I don't think...

GROSS: Well, precisely.

Mr. McINERNEY: ...that's necessarily a function of their unique limitations
so much as their unique awareness of their--you know, of their
hyper-awareness, you know, of their--you know, they're media-savvy. They are
extremely well-read. They are too self-conscious by half. And this is one of
the things that I find interesting about these types of people. I'm not sure
I would go so far as to agree that they know they are in a McInerney novel,


Mr. McINERNEY: ...I think it's a funny idea.

GROSS: But that's the thing, if you're self-aware enough to examine your life
and say about your life, `This is a cliche,' then what?

Mr. McINERNEY: Well, I...

GROSS: Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever looked at your life and
thought, `I'm a cliche.'

Mr. McINERNEY: Well, certainly, yeah. I've certainly looked at my life and
said, `I'm a stereotype.' I mean, I have a public persona which I think Menand
is sort of alluding to there, as well, that sometimes feels like a prison, you
know? I mean, that sort of--you know, the sort of bad boy novelist who wrote
"Bright Lights, Big City" and then seem to be living it out in public. That
was--I felt trapped in that cliche to some extent, and I've been trying to
struggle my way out of it for some time, you know?

It was particularly confining when it was a stereotype that was created, you
know, more than 20 years ago for you. We all do grow and change.

But if you feel that you're living a cliche, I think there's a simple answer
to your question, and I--or I can think of at least one question, and that is
romance and romantic love. And I think that this is Luke McGavock and Corrine
Calloway's solution to that dilemma. Or their--you know, this is the road out
of that feeling of being trapped in preconceived forms.

GROSS: We were talking before about how your book is in part about the ways
in which lives were changed after September 11th...

Mr. McINERNEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and some of the things people tried to do to consciously change
their lives, having re-evaluated their lives in the aftermath of September

Mr. McINERNEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You had just separated from your wife before September 11th.

Mr. McINERNEY: Yes. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So you were dealing with that at the time. And I'm wondering, if
you're comfortable talking about it, how that affected what you saw when you
took stock of your life after September 11th?

Mr. McINERNEY: Well, when I took stock, initially, my impulse was to--I
suppose my first impulse was to flee the city to return to the bosom of my
family, to go back in time, as it were. And it was something that I thought
long and hard about, and ultimately I wasn't successful in that attempt,

GROSS: And where was home?

Mr. McINERNEY: Well, my ex-wife and I had been sort of dividing our time
between Tennessee and New York. And then she chose to move back to Tennessee
when we got divorced. So there was a real temptation, I think, to, you know,
flee the city. I really--because of my...(unintelligible)...upbringing, I
really didn't have any roots. So Tennessee was the closest thing I could
think of. And I tried and ultimately failed. I think that there were an
awful lot of valiant attempts made after September 11th to do what seemed to
be the noble thing, the ideal thing, or the--you know, the sort of safe and
comfortable thing. That is to say, to retreat, to hunker down. And, you
know, I think as--some of these changes, some of these attempts were
successful perhaps. Mine wasn't.

GROSS: When you say return to family, you went back to your wife, is that
what you're saying?

Mr. McINERNEY: No, I didn't actually go back with my wife. I tried to.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. McINERNEY: It's complicated, but I think we both agreed after talking
long and hard about it that I couldn't do it.

GROSS: So that is in part what the novel is about, don't you think? Yes?


GROSS: About the things you feel like you should do in the face of this and
what works and what doesn't.

Mr. McINERNEY: Yeah, I think--yeah. I think the novel is sort of my encoded
sort of version of all of this, you know? And sometimes I think I would have
saved myself a great deal of effort if I've just written it straight, you
know. I mean, in some ways Luke does all the things that I didn't do. But I
wasn't comfortable writing straight from my--that directly from my own

GROSS: The main characters in "The Good Life" were created in your previous


GROSS: "Brightness Falls."

Mr. McINERNEY: "Brightness Falls."

GROSS: Why did you want to bring them into your new novel? Why not start

Mr. McINERNEY: "Brightness Falls" is my favorite of my books. And Russell
and Corrine Calloway, the protagonists of that novel, I have to say, always
seemed to be kind of a representative couple in some ways. They were the sort
of, you know, the golden couple, the college sweethearts who went to the city
and who made matrimony seem attractive from the outside. And they were living
out the--you know, the dream of the young couple moving to New York and making
their way, succeeding. I guess I always wanted to follow up with them. I'm a
great admirer of John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom series. You know, to me it's
just a tremendous achievement. And to watch Rabbit, to pick, you know, to
follow him decade by decade through the '60s, the '70s, the '80s, to watch him
grow old and ultimately die. This was something that seemed wonderful and
rich to me. And I'd always planned to revisit these characters. I also think
they're my most complex, most fully realized characters.

And when I was thinking about writing a novel that chronicled the responses to
the events of 9/11, it suddenly seemed natural that they would be among the

GROSS: In part because you knew them so well.

Mr. McINERNEY: Yes, honestly, I felt that I knew them very well. And I was
interested in what they had been up to since I had last visited them. And I
just--I don't know. I just have fairly vivid sense of what they would be
doing and where they were. And it was something I really wanted to do. I
wanted to revisit them.

GROSS: For reasons I'll explain in a moment, I'd like to end our interview
with a reading from the final paragraph of "Brightness Falls," the novel that
you wrote just before "The Good Life." So would you read the last few lines of
that for us?

Mr. McINERNEY: Indeed.

This is from the end of the novel. Russell Calloway is falling asleep and
meditating on, among other things, the death of his best friend Jeff Pierce.

(Reading) "It seems to him as if they are taking a course in loss lately. And
as he feels himself falling asleep, he has an insight he believes is
important, which he hopes he will remember in the morning, although it is one
of those thoughts that seldom survive translation to the language of daylight
hours. Knowing that whatever plenty befalls them together or separately in
the future, they will become more and more intimate with loss as the years
accumulate. Friends dying or slipping away undramatically into the crowded
past, memory itself finally flicking and growing treacherous toward the end.
Knowing that even the children who may be in their future will eventually
school them in the pain of growth of separation as their own parents and
mentors die off and leave them alone in the world, shivering at the dark

GROSS: The reason why I wanted to end with that, in addition to the fact that
I think it's a really beautifully written passage, is that the loss that he
expects to continue to face, he does face in the new book in ways that he
couldn't possibly have imagined. And I'm not sure that you imagined that the
ending of that book would be exactly the door into the new one.

Mr. McINERNEY: It is strange to me. The other thing that I was thinking
about as I was reading that was that a part of the backdrop to that passage,
it was the stock market crash of 1987, in which Russell loses a lot of money
and loses control of the company he's trying to take over. And it just
suddenly occurred to me that seemed like a relatively cataclysmic event at the
time, and then it really pales in comparison to the cataclysm that I'm writing

GROSS: In thinking about...

Mr. McINERNEY: ...nine years later.

GROSS: thinking about the past, Russell refers to "the crowded past." I
really like that a lot, because the older you get, the more crowded the past

Mr. McINERNEY: Yeah, the crowded it is. Even as the faces, perhaps, become
less distinct. Yeah, that, you know, I have to admit I labored a little over
that passage there. There isn't an undeliberate word there.

GROSS: What does laboring over that passage mean? What did you do when you
were laboring? Like, how often did you rewrite it? How often did you go
back? How much time would you let it lapse before going back to it?

Mr. McINERNEY: Well, it's hard to remember exactly, but this book went
through at least three drafts. And, actually, it was my most labor-intensive
book. It was about four years that I worked on "Brightness Falls." I
initially conceived it as being shorter and less complicated. And my friend
and mentor Raymond Carver had an expression that he always like to say that
writing is rewriting. By which he meant that, you know, for him the writing
process really began with the second draft when you had to, you know--it was
like when you cleared a path and then you could really begin to focus on
language and detail and rhythm and nuance. And I think that's true to some

You know, of course, every once in a while, you know, we commit a sentence
which is--you know, comes fully formed or a paragraph which comes fully formed
and sparkles and shines. But, you know, I think for me, I would agree with
Carver that writing is rewriting. And this--you know, this passage didn't
come to me in a flash of inspiration. Although, thankfully, I can't remember
all the labor that went into it now.

GROSS: Is saying `writing is rewriting' liberating in a way because it takes
the burden...


GROSS: of the first draft?

Mr. McINERNEY: Yeah.

GROSS: You could write anything, let it come out.

Mr. McINERNEY: I think, I really...

GROSS: You can always reshape it.

Mr. McINERNEY: ...I think one of the reasons I remember that so well is
because it was so useful at the time because, I think, like many, many
beginning writers, I was sort of just crippled by a sense of the momentousness
of, you know, committing yourself, committing yourself to a sentence, to a
paragraph, to a story, you know? Worrying whether you were going down the
right path. Worrying whether you were making the right choice. And Carver's
dictum was, you know, `Just get it down. Get black on white,' as Maupassant
said. And then you can go back and make it sing. And it was liberating, and
I think it's a good piece of advice.

GROSS: You mentioned Raymond Carver as your mentor. Gary Fisketjon has been
your editor forever, right?

Mr. McINERNEY: Mm-hmm. Right. Absolutely.

GROSS: What role does he play in your life as your editor?

Mr. McINERNEY: Well, Gary Fisketjon was a friend of mine from Williams
College. And we started trading books back in 1975, I guess.

GROSS: Books that you were reading?

Mr. McINERNEY: Yeah. We kind of in a sense grew up together in the literary
sense. You know, we took a course on Ulysses together, which was a very
important book for us. I remember lending him Raymond Carver's first book,
"Will You Please Be Quiet, Please," which just took the top of my head off.
You know, I often thought that reading that book in 1976 was a little bit like
it must have been to read "In Our Time," you know, Hemingway's early
collection of stories. Gary subsequently became Raymond Carver's editor. So
we had really been, I think, shaping each other's literary sensibilities to
some extent for many years when Gary became an editor at Random House and
eventually published my first novel, "Bright Lights, Big City."

He plays a big role. Gary is the person I show the first draft to. In the
case of "The Good Life," I was baffled because I couldn't quite figure out,
after 500 pages, what I was attempting when I finished a draft. And I gave it
to Gary. And I remember he scratched his head, too. And, unfortunately, he
wasn't quite sure what I was up to. Subsequently, you know, when I finally
knew where I was going, when I gave Gary the first draft, he gives it an
extremely thorough read. We often end up arguing about sentences, arguing
about punctuation. Sometimes it gets loud and violent almost.

GROSS: Can you remember the argument over a sentence?

Mr. McINERNEY: Boy, I can't think of an example right now. But I can tell
you that, ultimately, he will fight me for what he believes in. And then,
ultimately, he will--sometimes I think that his goal as an editor is economy,
and sometimes I think mine as a writer is rhythm. And those are, you know,
those can be different goals. But, ultimately, he says to me, `It's your name
on the book.'

The other thing that I can remember is that he fought hard for this title. I
doubted it for a while, and I thought the title was a little provocative.

GROSS: The title "The Good Life" is the one you thought of as provocative.

Mr. McINERNEY: "The Good Life," well, yeah, as a reviewer named Benjamin
Strong said in the Village Voice this week, in what was a very, very nice
review. It started of in what for me was scary fashion. He said, you know,
`Any'--something to the effect that, you know, `A book called "The Good Life"
from the well-known, self-dramatizing, hedonist Jay McInerney could be a
dangerous thing.' But Gary was very fond of the title all the way and kept
telling me the ways in which it was the right title for this book. And I
ultimately believed him in those regards.

GROSS: What are the ways?

Mr. McINERNEY: Well, I think all the characters in this book are, in one way
or another, asking themselves what constitutes the good life? What is the
well-lived life? And, of course, the title is also ironic because certainly
we have people like Luke and Sasha McGavock, very, very wealthy Manhattanites,
going to all the right parties and wearing all the right clothes. You know,
certainly they would seem to be living a cliche of the good life. You know, I
think it's a pretty rich title and, I don't know, I suppose it could be an
overarching title for a lot of my work.

GROSS: You had mentioned that at Ground Zero when you were helping to get
food to the firefighters and police.

Mr. McINERNEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You were trying to round up gourmet meals from the people in the food
world that you knew.

Mr. McINERNEY: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: But what people really wanted was comfort food, chicken soup, peanut

Mr. McINERNEY: Yeah.

GROSS: There is a character in your new novel who has peanut butter sandwich
for the first time in a long time.

Mr. McINERNEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And it sets off this like monumental revelatory flashback about his
childhood. Did anything happen to you when you found yourself eating peanut
butter at Ground Zero?

Mr. McINERNEY: Yeah. Yeah. I was just thinking of it now. I started to


Mr. McINERNEY: Because I hadn't had it in so long. It was my childhood.
And I don't specifically associate it with the kind of traumatic event that
Luke did, but I just I had not had peanut butter since I was--oh, I hadn't had
peanut butter and jelly since I was 12 or 13 years old. And it just
catapulted me back to that moment. And I think, you know, I have a son who is
now almost that age. And I think I just remembered how scary it was being and
how difficult it was being that age. And it was just an overwhelming
emotional response. I just had the hardest time figuring it out or explaining
to people why I was crying as I was eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
But then again, it was a time when there was a lot of raw emotion. It was, I
mean, people were bursting into tears all the time, I guess, but that was my
little epiphany. Even if it didn't have a really specific narrative content,
suddenly I was 12 years old again. I was feeling very vulnerable and scared.

GROSS: Which was probably how you were feeling as an adult at that moment,

Mr. McINERNEY: Yeah. It was--you know, it was extraordinary. I'm just
thinking of so many of those moments, and nobody had to explain themselves
when they started crying, as they were serving coffee or soup or, you know,
rigatoni. It was, as I said, a time of real heightened awareness.

And I think that, you know, it was interesting. It was sort of like an
earthquake where suddenly all of these like sediments of memory were exposed
as if in a big sort of fault line. Suddenly, something could carry you back
to your childhood that way, back to some other trauma, back to some other
incredibly vivid moment in your life. And that's part of what I was trying to
capture in the book.

GROSS: Jay McInerney, thank you very, very much for talking with us.

Mr. McINERNEY: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Jay McInerney's new novel is called "The Good Life."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Ken Tucker reviews The Strokes' third album, "First
Impressions of Earth"

"First Impressions of Earth" is The Strokes' third album. When the band
released its debut in 2001, they were hailed as the group that would
re-establish New York City as the center of post-punk rock: fast, loud and
flashy. But after selling over two million copies of the debut, their
follow-up, 2003's "Room on Fire," sold only half as much. Rock critic Ken
Tucker says The Strokes' new album offers some self-criticism and some frantic
career adjustment in the midst of the music.

(Soundbite of The Strokes)

Mr. JULIAN CASABLANCAS: (Singing) "Razor blade, that's what I call love. I
bet you pick it up and mess around with it. If I put it down, it gets
extremely complicated. Anything to forget everything. You got to take me

Mr. KEN TUCKER: That song, "Razor Blade," is typical of The Strokes' current
sound. Lead singer and songwriter Julian Casablancas' hoarse voice can be
heard more clearly than ever over the chiming guitars of Albert Hammond Jr.
and Nick Valensi. The song itself practically begs to be misinterpreted. The
refrain "My feelings are more important than yours," isn't what the singer is
telling his girlfriend. They are a quote from her to him. He's the selfish
one. And the point is to let her have her say in this song.

It's good to hear Casablancas get outside his own head, and the song is nicely
confusing. Less confusing is the pattern the album falls into as it proceeds,
upbeat tunes for downbeat emotions.

(Soundbite of The Strokes)

Mr. CASABLANCAS: (Singing) "I'm tired of everyone I know. Of everyone I
see, on the street and on TV. Yeah."

Mr. TUCKER: Oh, what an unhappy boy our Casablancas is. That song called
"On the Other Side" is a litany of dissatisfaction. "I'm tired of everyone I
know," moans Casablancas. "Of everyone I see on the street and on TV." He
says, "I hate them all, and I hate myself for hating them. I'm so tired of
being so judgmental," he concludes.

It's a downer, but it is surrounded by a jaunty melody that gives the singer's
depression a buoyant lift.

Similarly on this song called "Ask Me Anything," Casablancas croons the
refraining phrase "I've got nothing to say." With such lovely sincerity, it
becomes less a proclamation of creative bankruptcy than a shrewd
self-assessment. You've got to like a rock lyricist who sings "We could drag
it out, but that's for other bands to do."

(Soundbite of The Strokes)

Mr. CASABLANCAS: (Singing) "Right, wrong, what to do? Someday it will come
to you. Hostile Indians. We named our summer camp for you. I've got nothing
to say. I've got nothing to say. I've got nothing to say. I've got nothing
to say. I've got nothing to say."

Mr. TUCKER: The notion of having nothing to say pops up again and again on
"First Impressions of Earth," most forcefully on the rave-up close-out of the
album "Red Light." The band is collaborating with a new producer David Kahne,
a veteran who has worked with pop acts ranging from The Bangles to Sugar Ray.
Kahne has tied up The Strokes' sound, which most often has been as mussed and
bedraggled as their hair.

(Soundbite of The Strokes)

Mr. CASABLANCAS: (Singing) "Some people think they're always right. Others
are quiet and uptight. Others they seem so very nice, nice, nice, nice,
oh-ho. Inside they might feel sad and wrong, oh, no.

Twenty-nine different attributes. Only seven that you like. Twenty ways to
see the world, oh-ho. Twenty ways to start a fight, oh-ho.

Oh, don't, don't, don't get out. So I can see the sunshine. I'll be waiting
for you, baby. Cause I'm through. Sit me down. Shut me up. I'll calm down.
And I'll get along with you."

Mr. TUCKER: The Strokes' history is as much about image-making as it is
about music-making. One of them dates Drew Barrymore. Another has had
well-publicized struggles with alcohol. Glam and disillusion are what the
first two albums were about, if they were about anything.

These guys who attended posh Manhattan prep schools, who idolized the New York
Dolls and The Ramones, who emulated the short, fast, sharp style of 30 years
ago, are now writing some songs that run well over four minutes. Some call it
progress. I call it an interesting way to come to grown-up terms with
semisobriety and an urge to become more nuanced about their artistic
ambivalence. For a guy who insists he's got nothing left to say, Julian
Casablancas' actions as songwriter and band leader are speaking louder than
his intentionally empty words.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
"First Impressions of Earth" by The Strokes. The Strokes begin a 17-city tour
March 3rd.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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