Books

Jay McInerney
Bright, Precious Days

Bright, Precious Days is the third novel that follows Corrine and Russell Calloway, Jay McInerney’s Ivy League husband and wife team, emblematic of all the hedonism, ambition and callow lust for life, sex and drugs of New York in the ’80s.

Corrine and Russell moved to Manhattan as part of the wave of yuppies that colonised the lofts of SoHo and Tribeca. In the trilogy, we’ve joined them every 10 years or so as they’ve built a life for themselves and then sabotaged it with repeated episodes of adultery, set against recent historical shifts in the spiritual architecture of New York City.

Brightness Falls (1992) was an epic that followed the couple as they entered their 30s, struggling to balance bohemian glamour with an increasingly mercantile city, a novel of thwarted ambition that divided New York (which to these Manhattanites, means the world) into two teams: Art and Love v Power and Money; a big-picture melodrama reminiscent of Tom Wolfe at his best, bursting with energy and wit.

The Good Life (2006) was a Mills and Boon-like story about torrid affairs set off by the citywide trauma of 9/11. It was less successful in capturing a coked-up immoral zeitgeist and more reminiscent of the experience of being trapped at a dinner party with a coked-up boor. It fell short of a Kerouacian snapshot of a generation, or Capote-esque portrait of New York, but recalled Capote’s sledge of the Beat: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” It was evocative of New York in the summer; frenetic, overcrowded, glamorous, perhaps, but inescapably redolent of hot trash.

Happily, this latest, set in 2008 against the cautious hope of an impending Obama presidency, is a return to form for McInerney. His propensity for overearnest melodrama has been sharpened into a cool, autumnal irony to apply to what he does best: dissecting the absurdities and status anxieties of the city’s cultural elite.

The wave of gentrifying settlers that turned parts of Manhattan from crime-addled but artistically vibrant communities into showdowns for competitive dining are now being priced out of the city they transformed – Russell and Corrine among them. They moved to a city chasing a nostalgia for its Golden Age, and now find themselves, as middle age approaches, nostalgic for their own relatively carefree youth. Three irresistible forces are at play on the Calloway marriage: love, death and the property market, and now Manhattan’s team Power and Money is on the ascent. 

Russell, a book editor, is firmly on team Art and Love. He heads a publishing house that he has kept running at great personal and financial cost and, as Bright, Precious Days begins, is finally getting a break. He has a hit on his hands with Jack Carson, a talented, tortured, drug-addled bright young thing from a meth-infested Tennessee backwater who is set to inherit the mantle of New York literary wunderkind that McInerney himself once enjoyed. At the same time, a book that Russell once published by his long-dead friend Jeff Pierce, which chronicles an affair he had with Corrine, is enjoying a cult resurgence. This latter book is a much-needed windfall for the Calloways, both in cash and artistic credibility, and Corrine is trying to adapt it into a screenplay – a stab at creative fulfilment after enduring perpetual career crises. From there, the plot gets busy.

In another author’s hands, this might be a soapy mess, but McInerney’s gift for dialogue allows him to build an emotional framework to this book that exists chiefly to buttress sparkling exchanges between brassy New Yorkers, who speak entirely in barbed truisms: “Have you noticed – romantics are like fat people? You don’t meet any old ones?”

McInerney’s singular talent is both his greatest strength and weakness here. He has an uncanny ability to skewer the absurdities of monied pretension – the way image-obsessed diners will order a fashionable cheesy salad, but ask the waiter to hold the fatty ingredients until it becomes “water and fiber and the sweet smell of denial”. Sometimes, however, the author’s affinity with phrasing will offer up a hyperbolic corker that makes you want to stop reading – this book and perhaps all books forever – such as the description of a man who “Flew too close to the sun on wings made of cocaine”.

Missteps such as these, along with a tendency to jam in rapidly dating pop culture references, recall an age when McInerney was a wild prodigy who, alongside Bret Easton Ellis and Tama Janowitz, were known by critics as the “Brat Pack”, and whose overindulgences in prose were made up for by their shocking subject matter. It’s territory that seems a little superannuated in the hands of a more mature, accomplished McInerney.

Romantic entanglements among characters who struggle to stay faithful for more than the length of an inner monologue can grow dull after three books and there are few character arcs that aren’t settled with gratuitous oral sex, usually in a restroom. This played for shock and comedy when the author was the voice of the ’80s, but seems almost quaint at a time when a generation of young writers are unable to put someone else in their mouth without writing an op-ed about it.

These flaws are easily forgotten, though, in a book that achieves an almost impossible balance between sweet, salty, sophisticated and entertaining. It’s lots of fun.

It’s an elegy for a New York we’ll never see again, and for youth, but one with a certain Titian acceptance, and a hope for the future. As Corrine chides her husband when he threatens to get maudlin over the past: “Let’s not get nostalgic for the era of muggings and graffiti and crack vials in the hallway.”

It finishes on an emotionally mature and satisfying enough note to justify the convolution of adventures on which we’ve accompanied Russell and Corrine. The three books clock in at more than 1000 pages, of an epic scope that could be compared to Tolstoy, if Tolstoy were less interested in matters of destiny and theology, and more in name-dropping and assuring everyone that while he doesn’t do coke anymore he’s still down for a good time.  ZC

Bloomsbury, 416pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 10, 2016 as "Jay McInerney, Bright, Precious Days". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: ZC