A few years ago, I reconnected with a college acquaintance whom I hadn’t seen in decades. He recalled that I had a tendency, during my long grad school stint, to wear Oxford cloth button-down shirts with the collar unbuttoned. This was true but I had never called attention to it and didn’t realize anyone had noticed, much less remembered.
I liked the shirts but never liked button-downs and I guess the look was a subtle rebuke to the preppy movement of the day. Indeed, I still don’t like button-downs but occasionally I will accidentally buy one. Life’s too short to return clothes that fit so, more often than not, I will wear the button-down with the collar unbuttoned. I guess it’s an affectation, but it’s a subtle and harmless one … until now, when I have announced it.
This memory was sparked by the fact that I just finished Jay McInerney’s latest novel, Bright, Precious Days (Knopf, 2016). In it there is a flashback to the ‘80s in which one of the characters asks another – a bad boy novelist – why he wears his button-downs unbuttoned. His reply is that he likes to have options.
One good thing about all of this is that it seems that I am regularly reading novels again. Over the past couple of years, I have abandoned old habits like going to movies and plays and hiking and reading fiction and so it’s good to see that my attention to novels and short stories, at least, seems to be renewed.
I bought the McInerney book on a whim when it hit the shelves last summer and never opened it. A couple of weeks ago, looking for new reading material, there it was.
Jay McInerney exploded onto the literary scene in 1984 with his first novel, Bright Lights, Big City. He became an instant celebrity with a novel that captured the 80s zeitgeist with precision and skill while harking back to his literary predecessors, especially unmistakable allusions to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Quickly, McInerney became the slightly elevated figure of the “literary brat pack” pantheon that included himself, Bret Easton Ellis, and Tama Janowitz.
The first edition of Bright Lights, Big City was released in paperback with the Vintage Contemporaries imprimatur and it became the triple threat of a cool book with a cool cover and a cool marketing strategy. The fact that it was also very well written didn’t hurt. Raymond Carver, a McInerney mentor, had a blurb on the front cover; Barry Hannah, who I knew from his time teaching in Tuscaloosa, had a blurb on the back cover.
McInerney is less than a month older than me. That burns a little.
The author’s Icarus-like ascent prompted almost immediate backlash and the inevitable fall and McInerney’s fame often backfired on him with the idea that he was a one-book wonder. It was difficult for anything he did to live up to the success and hype of Bright Lights.
The book’s biggest and well-controlled gimmick was that it is a second person narrative in which the narrator’s name is never revealed. The book takes you on a drug-fueled romp through jaded 1980s Manhattan night life as the nameless narrator deals with the loss of his fashion model wife, his job, and his dignity. The book’s relentless rhythm makes one’s pulse race.
I annually read passages from Bright Lights, Big City to my Oral Interpretation students as an example of the second-person narrative voice. With the disinterested looks from that audience – which sometimes seems unaware of any art, music, or literature pre-Beyonce’s “Lemonade” – I might as well be reading Dickens to them (and I sometimes do). A few usually perk up when I drop the tidbit that “Bolivian marching powder” is the narrator’s pet name for cocaine.
My friends and I liked Bright Lights, Big City immediately; the book fueled our imaginations about the writer’s struggle and that sordid siren call of 1980s Manhattan. Despite the author’s fervent denials, we all assumed the book’s narrator was McInerney’s doppelganger. A running joke among us was the narrator’s self-pitying reference to “The Brotherhood of Unfulfilled Early Promise”; we declared ourselves charter members.
Despite occasional setbacks and the occasional stinker in his literary output, McInerney is not a member of the brotherhood he imagined. His steady output of fiction is supplemented by stints as a wine columnist for House and Garden and, these days, The Wall Street Journal. The wine writing has yielded three well-received books on the subject.
That wine knowledge and some level of culinary snobbery come to play in the character of Russell Calloway in Bright, Precious Days. He exhibits that smugness that often comes across in the work of New Yorkers as he drops names of people, places, art, designer labels – a trait that is pretty much a constant in McInerney’s work.
Manhattan writers have a tendency to drop names and the audience congratulates itself on knowing what they’re talking about. Never mind that, if we’re reading or looking at their work, we probably have read the same books, seen the same movies, followed the same artists, and shared the same popular culture. Woody Allen’s Manhattan movies are the same in that regard; we in the audience congratulate ourselves for catching the references even though they’re not really so obscure, especially if we’ve seen other Woody Allen movies.
On my first visit to New York City – in the 80s, actually, not long after the publication of Bright Lights – I was staying with a buddy and his girlfriend on the Upper East Side. Neither was a native (she was Ohio and he was Jersey shore) but they had been in the city long enough to develop the smug insider façade. As we traveled around the city, my hosts took great pleasure in turning a corner and then turning to me with a smirk and wide eyes and asking me if I knew what that building, landmark, etc. might be. They seemed deflated whenever I got it right (Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick’s, the Guggenheim, Chrysler Building, the Dakota, Seagram Building, Elaine’s, Lever House, Carnegie Hall, et al.). They were really easy challenges and I always got it right.
The Budweiser Clydesdales were grazing outside Tavern on the Green, for some reason. I recognized them, too, on the same morning that I passed Arthur Ashe exiting the Pierre.
One night, coming up from the subway downtown, my hosts seemed shocked – SHOCKED! – that I immediately recognized the World Trade Center, for goodness sake. “How do you know all of this about the city?” demanded the guy, seriously. “You said you’d never been here,” said his girlfriend, accusingly. I didn’t know what to say; I had been watching movies and television, reading books, newspapers, and magazines, reading about modern architecture, most of my life. Why wouldn’t I recognize those places?
Bright, Precious Days is McInerney’s third novel starring Corrine and Russell Calloway. This Calloway saga was preceded by Brightness Falls and The Good Life. The latest installment begins as Corrine and Russell are about to turn 50 and continues through the 2008 financial crisis and the Obama election. Many of the characters from the previous two books make cameos, take strong supporting roles, or appear in flashbacks.
McInerney has morphed into an elder statesman of his genre and the new novel purports to be a novel of the 2000s, but the 1980s, the era that galvanized the novelist and his career, are omnipresent – not only in the flashbacks, but in the angst and tastes and longings of its principals. In fact, I kept thinking of it as an 80s novel and identified with too many of the references and memories of that era it evoked.
In a flashback scene with Corrine and Jeff Pierce, the doomed writer who is central to the Brightness Falls plot, Jeff puts on Marquee Moon by Television – my favorite album by one of my favorite 1970s punk / new wave bands. Television was second only to Talking Heads in my book and Talking Heads gets an obligatory mention in the novel, too.
Several of the novel’s characters have traits and backgrounds that are strongly evocative of McInerney’s own biography and it’s hard not to linger on comparisons. One of the (many) writers in the novel observes that “most novels are memoirs and most memoirs are actually novels” – a factoid that’s hard to dismiss when dealing with McInerney.
In reading Bright, Precious Days I found myself annoyed with prose and characters that were occasionally too clever by half and impatient with frequent and extended explication. I sometimes wished that McInerney had paid attention to the thoughts he gives to his character Russell who congratulates himself for his editing work with a young and reckless Tennessee wunderkind whose book is a sensation:
The climactic action all happened in less than a page – what had once been three pages describing her thoughts and feelings, until Russell had cut and pared much of it away, saving the essentials and exposing, as he saw it, the hard, adamantine core. It was all there, but Jack had told too much in his original draft, hadn’t trusted his material, when, in fact, he’d already set it all up and provided everything the reader needed to know.”
I read that passage a couple of times, wishing that McInerney had Russell as his editor.
Even so, Bright, Precious Days is a good and compelling book, enjoyable and relevant. I stayed up late into the night to finish it. Each of the Calloway trilogy novels has significant adultery in its plot and McInerney’s evolution of the response of the adulterer as well as the adulterated is intriguing to consider. There is passion and truth as well as comedy and foolish missteps and nobody, it seems, is immune.
As soon as I finished this latest book, I took down and reread Brightness Falls, which many consider to be the author’s best work, but I still prefer Bright Lights, Big City.
I recently heard Ann Beattie, another of my favorite Boomer authors, comment that she didn’t think that much was being written about aging Baby Boomers because aging “is not really a sexy topic, you know?” I don’t know what Beattie is reading these days but I am seeing a lot of writing about aging out there.
Corrine and Russell – and McInerney and Beattie and I and all of our Baby Boomer buddies – are quickly passing out of middle age and facing the abyss and it’s always fun to see where that path will take us in McInerney’s deft hand. It has been fun to age along with him, his characters and stories.
And, lest we forget, Sam Shepard is 73 now.