McInerney has written two kinds of novels in his 30-year career: the first includes the early, funny ones — quickly written, witty novelettes about hip, or at least fashionable, Manhattan that nicely balance gentle satire with a sweetly forgiving spirit (Bright Lights, Big City; Story of My Life; Model Behavior). The second includes the four less funny, long-labored, and sometimes laborious big books, which include the trilogy along with The Last of the Savages (1996). The trilogy tries — tries — as McInerney puts it in a recent Paris Review interview, to “register the history of New York in my time […] creating a Manhattan social panorama.” Incidentally, none of these books are panoramic, unless you carve New York City down to a few slivers of Manhattan: the artier precincts below 14th street, the Upper East Side. Brightness Falls, centered around golden couple Russell and Corrine Calloway, tracks the lives of some striving yuppies as they navigate the go-go ’80s and run up against the stock market crash of ’87. The Good Life gives us the 40ish Calloways and their elite friends as they and the rest of New York attempt to recover from 9/11. Bright, Precious Days returns to the Calloway group, now nearing 50, documenting their lives from 2006 to 2008, when the financial crisis puts an end to the most recent of the nation’s exuberant financial sprees.
The trilogy novels are easy, dishy, even compelling reads, and McInerney dotes on characters he loves, though his asking us to dote on them too is where the trouble comes in. The novels are ambitious; they take up big if usually clichéd, shallow themes. In the new novel, for example, we witness the struggle between Art and Love on the one hand and Money and Power on the other. The novels also try to link up personal fates with larger national developments; they closely monitor the changes in elite boomer fashions from the 1980s, when, for instance, lemoned sole fillets might be served at a classy dinner party, to the 2000s, when insider-only restaurants in the Village dish up avant-delicacies like shirako (the uncooked sperm sacs of male cod). The social documentation in these novels is fun: McInerney knows the nexus of downtown financial manager/literary agent/art gallerist/society page habitué that constitutes his milieu. He obviously gets a kick out of writing scenes where macho Masters of the Universe talk money or sex on their yachts, or where lunching women frantically wave away bread, as if thighs thicken from mere proximity.
McInerney is an accomplished plotter and the trilogy novels are architecturally solid, with conflicts introduced and intensified until they reach climaxes that pop and boom at acceptably dramatic levels. It’s an old-fashioned, practically 19th-century talent. For instance, one character in Bright, Precious Days turns out to have a major flaw that ruins a romantic relationship, and that flaw is hinted at the moment he first enters the novel. The surprise event that saves a business from bankruptcy near the novel’s end is discreetly seeded in earlier chapters. Finally, there is the McInerney charm, which issues from his ability to present his wealthy, sophisticated Manhattanites the way their real-life counterparts would probably like to be presented: as savvy, witty, good-looking, successful, nostalgic romantics whose flaws and pretensions are worth mild satirization, but who are essentially lovable human beings. It’s easy to imagine couches from Tribeca up to the Upper East Side filled with curled-up readers sipping old-vine Bordeaux, turning Bright, Precious Days’s pages and sighing, “He gets us, he really gets us.”
McInerney’s longevity as a writer works partly off this flattery of his readership, partly off a loopily romantic view of New York that makes Woody Allen’s Annie Hall or Manhattan seem like examples of brutal naturalism. Bright, Precious Days begins with an encomium to literary New York circa the 1950s whose romantic tenor is classic McInerney. Its ingenuousness barely manages to tamp down its risibility: “Once, not so very long ago,” he intones,
young men and women had come to the city because they loved books, because they wanted to write novels or short stories or even poems […] For those who haunted suburban libraries and provincial bookstores, Manhattan was the shining island of letters. New York, New York: It was right there on the title pages — the place from which the books and magazines emanated, home of all the publishers, the address of The New Yorker and The Paris Review, where Hemingway had punched O’Hara and Ginsberg seduced Kerouac, Hellman sued McCarthy and Mailer had punched everybody, where — or so they imagined — earnest editorial assistants and aspiring novelists smoked cigarettes in cafés while reciting Dylan Thomas […] These dreamers were people of the book; they loved the sacred New York texts: The House of Mirth, Gatsby, Breakfast at Tiffany’s et al., but also all the marginalia: the romance and the attendant mythology — the affairs and addictions, the feuds and fistfights.
McInerney is 61, and the character through whom this third-person passage presumably speaks, the book editor Russell Calloway, is 50. What is “shining island of letters” and “smoked cigarettes in cafés while reciting Dylan Thomas” and “sacred texts” doing here? The diction here is so misty-eyed and soft-headed (a page later, Russell will consider “himself […] an acolyte, even a priest, of the written word”) that you wonder how McInerney can write this stuff with a straight face. Wouldn’t Hemingway punch McInerney himself if he read a passage like this? As for Fitzgerald, in everything from Gatsby on, he showed himself to be a shrewd critic of just this sort of starry-eyed idealizing. But McInerney soldiers on, oblivious to the fatuity, not to mention the nearly exclusively male, white nature of this vision of Manhattan and literature.
Despite the romantic overreaching, the parameters of the novel’s story lines are capacious enough for McInerney to do his usual gentle ribbing of the moral foibles and absurd attitudinizing of Manhattan’s upper crust. One of the plot lines concerns Russell and Corrine Calloway’s decision to try to buy their Tribeca loft, which they have been renting for more than 20 years, and which they cannot afford to buy on Russell’s salary as the editor of a boutique literary press and Corinne’s as the head of an outfit called Nourish New York, which hands out food to the city’s hungry. It could be that they can’t afford to buy because they spend “a few thousand dollars a month” on restaurants (Corrine, who runs a food-for-the-hungry organization, doesn’t address this paradox in any explicit way). Let’s call them “five percenters.” In middle age, these two are sick of renting and want to own, if not in Tribeca, then somewhere equally fashionable (“I’m one of those people,” Russell tells Corinne, “as Updike put it, who believes that anyone who lives anywhere other than New York must, in some sense, be kidding.”) Feeling financial pressure, Russell takes a gamble by offering a huge advance to a journalist whose alleged story of having escaped captivity from the Taliban promises a big payday if the man’s story checks out and the book hits. Russell also works hard to retain on his list a “redneck bard” named Jack Carson, whose reputation is booming and promises to fill Russell’s coffers if he wins the National Book Award. The only problem is that Carson is chafing at the fact that Russell edits and polishes Jack’s work so much that he no longer feels it’s his own (the story is imported from the real-life relationship of editor Gordon Lish and Raymond Carver) and is looking for another editor/publisher.
The money and publishing world sections of Bright, Precious Days are compelling and well done — the best part of the novel. Not so much the other parts. Readers of The Good Life will remember Corrine’s short affair with the suave equity firm manager Luke McGavock, who shows up again here. This time, he’s even more suave as a philanthropist, South African winemaker, husband to a model almost half his age, and owner of a private plane which he uses to whisk Corrine away for a weekend of sensational sex. Corrine, whose marriage with Russell has been ground down by childrearing and overfamiliarity, can’t resist some late-innings passion. Affairs abound among the Calloway group, as does talk of sex-in-your-50s: lunch companions, yachting companions, business companions are always asking each other how often they have sex with their spouses. The novel’s sex barometer suggests it tops out at once a week. Others settle for “a blow job on his birthday and we call it good for another year.” There are also a lot of gossipy scenes of summer parties in the Hamptons, testosteronic fishing trips, Chanel-clad women eating salad in chi-chi bistros, and people stalking through art galleries in bespoke outfits. By the time Lehman Brothers goes belly-up near the novel’s end, several marriages, not to mention personal fortunes, have gone belly-up, too. McInerney pulls off an ending to save his main characters, and the last chapter’s tone is credibly melancholy and even moving, but the novel never feels like it penetrates its subject even while the plot is well wrought, the society details gimlet eyed, and the sentences sonorous. In the end, however, this “Manhattan social panorama” is not just socioeconomically narrow, but flat as a map.
One problem is that McInerney doesn’t know how to write about people who aren’t part of Manhattan’s white elite. The fact that Corrine runs a food organization for the poor, which brings her up to Harlem or other struggling parts of the city, is McInerney’s clumsy attempt to inject some social conscience into her and Russell’s life. But the novel traffics in dismal, offensive clichés when McInerney characterizes black waitresses or homeless mothers waiting on a food line. The only Hispanics mentioned in the novel are shadowy thieves. There is one major character in the trilogy who is black — Washington Lee, a literary editor at a big publishing house married to a woman who works for Lehman Brothers — and he seems to be in the novels to rib white people for being white, to throw out ironic bon mots about the country’s ubiquitous racism, and to be a stud for a bejeweled socialite who calls out when he enters her hotel room, “Unzip my dress and put that big cock inside of me.” The portrait, for all its ironic wit, is shallow at best, casually racist at worst.
And yet, McInerney’s portraits of his white, elite characters are pretty shallow, too. One of many examples will have to do. A side plot in Bright, Precious Days has to do with Russell and Corrine’s relationship to their twin children. The kids are the result of in vitro fertilization: Russell’s sperm fertilized Corrine’s ovum outside the womb, and then was inserted into Corrine’s sister Hilary, who carried the twins to term. For unfathomable reasons, Russell and Corrine, presented throughout as emotionally intelligent, sensitive people who presumably know a little bit about child psychology, have never told their children about the circumstances of their birth. That’s not the most unfathomable part. In an early scene in the novel, a drunken Hilary blurts out to the two kids, now entering adolescence, that she is their “real mother” because she gave birth to them. Naturally, the news traumatizes them. We expect that Russell and Corrine, described always as good, doting parents, will have a nice long talk with the twins about this, but they never do. The daughter starts gaining weight, and they blame it on Corrine’s own obsession with weight or Russell being too much of a foodie. What is wrong with these people? If Russell and Corrine’s obtuseness is supposed to be some kind of satiric commentary on the self-involvement of wealthy Manhattan parents, that doesn’t come through. What comes through instead, is that McInerney has put at the center of his novels people who are self-deluded, and he doesn’t seem to know it because he’s blinded by their putative glamour and sophistication.
F. Scott Fitzgerald has always been McInerney’s role model. They’re both of Irish descent; they both burst on the literary scene with youthful “voice of a generation” novels before they were 30; they both craved the trappings of wealth and celebrity; they both chose as their subject matter the lives of the social elite, and idealized them mightily; they both cultivated prose styles whose stately cadences and lovely lightness of effect hid a multitude of flaws. The difference is that while Fitzgerald blew past his limitations in Gatsby, Tender is the Night, and stories like “Babylon Revisited,” forging a vision of the United States’s rich that shimmers with tragedy and pathos, McInerney’s work registers as mild comedy and feeble romance. Even with Fitzgerald’s example, not to mention the massive evidence of the perfidies of New York City’s rich and privileged, Jay McInerney still idealizes the rich, the “sophisticated,” the “fashionable.” He loves these people and the lives they lead; the man is still blinded by the bright lights of the big city.
Cornel Bonca is Professor of English at California State University, Fullerton.