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John Edwards Belongs in a Jay McInerney Novel


A surprising footnote to the Edwards affair is that Rielle Hunter turns out to be the prototype of the heroine of Jay McInerney's Story of My Life. Published in 1988, this was McInerney's third novel. His first was the bestseller Bright Lights, Big City, which follows a troubled young man as he snorts his way through early 80s Manhattan nightlife. It made McInerney a literary It boy; suddenly he was being waved past rope lines and seated at Elaine's with Mailer and Plimpton. But what to do for an encore? He tried something different: a novel set in Japan, about an American expat who embraces the martial arts as a means of coping with unpleasant memories. A critical and commercial flop, it at least featured a healthier lifestyle than the one in Bright Lights (although it ends with a deadly kumite bout). Perhaps afraid of being pegged as a one-hit wonder, McInerney decided to mine further material from the shallow exploits of Reagan-era twentysomethings.

Enter Rielle Hunter. Around this time, McInerney told the New York Post, he was seeing the then-party girl, who was known as Lisa Druck. He was so repelled and fascinated by her wild antics, he processed them into fiction. Thus was Story of My Life born. It's a short novel, only 188 pages long. It doesn't aspire to immortality; it's fluff, but thoughtful fluff. It looks at the sad life of Alison Poole in the spring of 1987. Alison isn't easy to like. When we first meet her, she's an STD-carrying slut who cons her latest lover into giving her money by telling him she needs an abortion. Her circle of friends is also spoiled and manipulative; they're beautiful debutantes who destroy everything in their wake and expect others to foot the bill. Should we care about these characters? Not really. What salvages this work is Alison's narrative voice. Breezy and confessional, it keeps you turning pages in order to discover what will happen to this pathetic girl whom you'd like to hug after slapping her silly.

If Rielle Hunter was anything like Alison Poole, it's a miracle she survived to wreck John Edwards' marriage. The whole sordid business has the elements of a McInerney novel: sex, money, ambition, betrayal, and the moral consequences of excess. McInerney knows the south well, having lived there for several years with one of his wives, so he could have created someone like John Edwards. Handsome North Carolinian from a poor family marries intelligent and caring woman. After earning millions as a trial lawyer, he wins a U.S. senate seat. Six years later, he's the Democratic vice presidential nominee. He and his unappealing running mate narrowly lose, but our hero is in a good position to capture the No. 1 spot next time. Almost immediately, however, tragedy strikes. His wife is diagnosed with cancer. They struggle through her arduous treatment, they rejoice when she goes into remission. Our hero returns to planning his campaign for the White House. Then he meets . . . Alison Poole, middle-aged and getting high on New Age jargon instead of blow.

But this isn't a novel. And if Edwards had become the nominee, every Democart, Independent, and reasonable Republican who opposes Bush and the right-wing agenda would be scarfing down antidepressants. What Edwards did was worse than anything McInerney's protagonists have done. Their behavior merely damaged themselves and those closest to them; Edwards placed the country in jeopardy. And, I'm sorry to say, Elizabeth Edwards is just as guilty. They acted like two other fictional characters: The West Wing 's First Couple, Jed and Abby Bartlet, who kept Jed's multiple sclerosis hidden during his first election. The difference, of course, is that MS, unlike adultery, is a disease over which you have no control.