“I’m like, I don’t believe this shit.” That’s the opening line of Jay McInerney’s Story of My Life. The thought is coming from Alison Poole, the protagonist of the novel (if you can use that term). McInerney based the character of Alison Poole on a woman he dated in the ’80s. Her name back then was Lisa Druck. She later married a guy named Alexander Hunter III and changed her name to Rielle Hunter. Then she had an affair with presidential candidate John Edwards. The rest is tabloid history. This shit really is hard to believe.
With those first two words — “I’m like” — it is clear that this is not your classic life story. Compare, for instance, the first sentence of Hans Christian Andersen’s The True Story of My Life. It goes, “My life is a lovely story, happy and full of incident.” Or this from Helen Keller’s Story of My Life: “The beginning of my life was simple and much like every other little life.” The central difference here is that Andersen and Keller mean it literally — this is the story of my life. Alison Poole uses “story of my life” as a turn of phrase, as in “got caught out in the rain again, story of my life.” It is an ironic distancing that is practically the opposite of the act of ownership that usually accompanies the telling of one’s life story. Poole’s life story is buffered by a constant cynicism. She is constantly trying to figure out the three greatest lies in life. The first two are “the check is in the mail” and “I won’t come in your mouth.” At the end of the novel she is reminded of the third: “I love you.”
Funny, glib, cruel, impossibly shallow, Alison is also capable of the following thought during sex:
Then he comes. Alison, he goes. Alison, Alison, Alison.
That’s my name. My parents gave it to me, the creeps. Alison Poole. I’m going to make goddamn sure he never forgets it.
I try. I want this to be enough, just this. Just contact, just friction. But it’s not. It doesn’t fix me the way it used to, the way you always dream it will.
Come to think of it, there really isn’t that much of a difference between Alison Poole and Keller or Andersen or anyone else telling the story of his or her life. It’s like Rousseau said at the beginning of his “Story of My Life,” The Confessions: “I propose to set before my fellow-mortals a man in all the truth of nature; and this man shall be myself.” Alison Poole’s story is slightly more complicated in that she is a fictional character created by McInerney and based mostly on another living person. But McInereny’s success is in creating a voice that is every bit a woman in all the truth of nature. That is the point of a life story, from Socrates’ Apology to Rousseau’s Confessions to Story of My Life. It is not about justification but about explanation. It is, then, also about truth. And it is no easy task to take the varnish off, to portray a life simply as what it is, one person’s life. To proclaim, as Rousseau put it, “Thus have I acted; these were my thoughts; such was I.” When McInerney met Lisa Druck he realized that he had come across a rare thing indeed, a person who was willing, more or less, to tell the truth about herself. There is ugliness in the self thus exposed, but a greater beauty in the truth thereby served.
Whatever name she goes by — Alison Poole, Lisa Druck, Rielle Hunter — she jumps out of McInerney’s book and into the ages. After her stint as a New York party girl in the ’80s she drifted to Los Angeles where she became Mrs. Hunter. Her father-in-law, Alexander Munro Hunter, was the prosecutor in the JonBenet Ramsey murder case. The unbelievable shit just kept piling up. She divorced and then in 2007 she got pregnant with John Edwards’ child. He denied it for as long as he could, finally getting caught (by The National Enquirer) hiding in the bathroom of the Beverly Hilton during a secret rendezvous with Ms. Hunter. In her recently published memoir, Elizabeth Edwards (John’s wife) calls Rielle “pathetic.” But the charge doesn’t stick. Somehow, through all the goofy plot twists, Rielle Hunter is the only one telling the truth. It is John Edwards who, in words Alison Poole would have used, is just another in a long line of cocks with hairdos. Poole/Druck/Hunter, by contrast, won’t soon be forgotten. Story of her life. • 7 July 2009