When I was a callow youth, a trip to the Big Apple always seemed like a journey into the future. Things cost way too much. Traffic moved way too fast. I was missing out on the fabulous future. The train had left the station and I wasn’t on it. I saw things I’d never seen before and probably wouldn’t unless I went back. I didn’t go back, settling for dribs and drabs of it leaking to the provinces. But anyone who made the same decision has a second chance. Jay McInerney has provided us with a time capsule. And it isn’t a pretty picture.
According to McInerney, all we out-of-towners missed was a whole lot of sorrow and uninteresting sorrow at that. That brilliant future never happened. Following the same route from the bowels of New York to the fancy towns of Long Island commemorated in “The Great Gatsby” 80 years before (but sadly lacking Nick Caraway’s narrative, the valley of ashes, the billboard with round eyeglasses and the gas station) all that’s there now are the ruined careers of artists, marriages in tatters, and children old before their time.
Corrine and Russell Calloway met in college. They moved to Tribeca in the ’80s and were successful at first. Now they are struggling to keep up with the jet-set Joneses. He is one bad book away from losing his publishing business. She makes almost nothing working for a charity that distributes leftover veggies to the homeless, an industry she discovered trying to help the afflicted in a soup kitchen after 9/11.
McInerney captures Thoreau’s “quiet desperation” very well as he describes two Baby Boomers in the throes of their mid-life crisis. Even if things turn around and Calloway finds the book of the century and his wife goes back to her former job as a stock broker, they face middle-class bankruptcy. They can’t afford the tiny loft they failed to buy when they could; their twins, whom they had late due to difficulties with fertilization, need to go to private schools and college.
But McInerney and his alter ego protagonist, Russell Calloway, haven’t had enough. They still hold out hope.
It’s a grizzly optimism. McInerney ends the two previous novels about the Calloways with something terrible happening to his city. The stock market crash ended “Brightness Falls” and 9/11 ended “The Good Life.” This novel picks up from there and revolves around real estate problems. So you know where this one ends. Their rich friends own property and have their money in stocks. Many of them work as real estate agents or as stock brokers. Bringing everyone else down to your level of misery is rather mean-spirited, it seems to me. But that’s McInerny’s goal.
He can’t even leave his mentor, Raymond Carver, alone. An important plot twist dredges up the old scandal that Gordon Lish may be more responsible for Carver’s style than Carver. Tess Gallagher, Carver’s second wife, insisted on printing posthumously the early drafts of Carver’s stories before Lish got his editorial pencils on them. Calloway is an editor/publisher and his latest find, a hillbilly version of Carver, fires him because he over-edited his copy.
The parallels between McInerney and Russell Caraway are many. McInerney created a stir with his first New York City novel, “Bright Lights, Big City,” in the ’80s. Fresh out of school where his creative writing teacher was Raymond Carver, he wrote a minimalist novel that might have come out of Carver’s bottom drawer. Then he wrote the screenplay for the movie starring Michael J. Fox. After that it’s been all downhill. His last novel in this trilogy sold only 15,000 copies. But he keeps trying just like Calloway.
McInerney “gets work” as they say in the movie business. It’s not always the best work – he’s the sometime wine critic at the “Wall Street Journal” – but he’s persistent.
McInerney learned from the Gallagher/Lish squabble. He seems to have moved on from Carver/Lish’s minimalism to Carver’s unedited style, which owes a lot to Lawrence Durrell of all people! McInerney is now a maximalist and just in time because unedited, corny, over the top copy is all the rage. His characters are forever saying predictable, unfunny things to each other that they have to apologize for, but it seems like the reader is the one who deserves the apology.
What the legendary editor of the New Yorker, Harold Ross, once said in a scathing criticism of one of his writers could also be said of McInerney: He “seems to think everything that happens to him is interesting.”
I’m related to a very good chef in LA. Like his peers he specializes in making almost edible what my generation considered offal until you’re told what you’re eating. “Bright, Precious Days” is the literary version of the same process: shoving down the reader’s throat the meetings, the languages, the relationships and the attitudes we swore we would avoid in the ’70s and ’80s. Name dropping, descriptions of fine wine, expensive meals and women’s clothes that must be worn only once – all those things that didn’t impress us once suddenly should.
Well, I’m not biting.
Bright, Precious Days
By Jay McInerney
397 pages, $27.95
William L. Morris is the co-creator of The Buffalo News poetry page and a former teacher. He lives and writes in Florida.