Once More Unto the Loft

By Kurt Wenzel
Jay McInerney Michael Lionstar

“Bright, Precious Days”

Jay McInerney

Knopf, $27.95

If you lived in New York City in the latter 1980s and early 1990s, as I did, chances are you had strong feelings regarding the writer Jay McInerney. Some of these feelings, maybe you can now admit, involved jealousy. You too came to the city to become a famous artist — of whatever sort — and things didn’t quite work out. Mr. McInerney, meanwhile, seemed to breeze in and hit the jackpot. It was irritating. 

I remember trying to defend Mr. McInerney to some of my friends at the time, arguing that he was a genuine writer — and being met with revolt. He was a poseur, they said, a faux-Fitzgerald who had gotten lucky with one book, “Bright Lights, Big City.” 

I wasn’t sure how they’d come to this conclusion, since most of them had read “Bright Lights” but not his other work. If they had, they would have come across a few books that confirmed their suspicions (“Last of the Savages” comes to mind). But they would also have encountered one that upset that narrative: 1992’s “Brightness Falls.” This remains Mr. McInerney’s best book and is, to my mind, one of the better chronicles of the 1980s and its ultimate burnout. 

And let no one say Mr. McInerney doesn’t know when he’s on to a good thing. His sequels to “Brightness Falls” are now into their second installment with the release this summer of the treacly titled but enjoyable “Bright, Precious Days.” 

Once again, “Bright, Precious Days” follows his protagonists Russell Calloway and his wife, Corrine, as they navigate marriage, money, and sex in the big city. Russell is an editor at a prestigious publishing house who, as the novel begins, is betting big on two authors: a hedonistic young short-story writer, and a memoirist who claims that he was kidnapped by the Taliban. Things with Corrine are strained: Raising two children, she is tired of living in a slightly dilapidated loft in TriBeCa with only one bathroom (oh, the horror!) and is contemplating a liaison with an old flame, the financial wizard Luke. 

The novel’s plot lies mostly in watching Russell’s prized authors flame out and Corrine reluctantly give in to an affair. As with all three of the Calloway novels (the middle child being 2006’s “The Good Life”), a mother lode of downtown glamour is mixed in with some genuine pain: Russell and Corrine are the two most wholly fleshed characters in Mr. McInerney’s canon. 

There is also Mr. McInerney’s trademark wit, which is on full display in the novel. This exchange about drugs, for example: 

 “That was Nancy Reagan’s big slogan in the ’80s. ‘Just say no.’ ”

“How’d that work out?”

“The drugs wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

And when Russell and a friend named Tom engage in a pretentious battle of wine knowledge at a restaurant, there is this comment from Tom as he tastes some of his combatant’s wine: 

“You guys are a bunch of pedophiles,” he called out. “This wine’s a baby.” 

At the same time, a recurring McInerney tic seems to have gotten worse in “Bright, Precious Days.” That is the author’s habit of never introducing a set piece that isn’t brand-named or personally vetted by New York magazine or the New York Times food section. There is no such thing as just a “restaurant” in this novel, for example — there are more specifically Bouley, Balthazar, the Spotted Pig (here called the Fatted Calf, for whatever reason), Bacchus (a stand-in for Per Se), and so on . . . and on. Fishing? That is to be done in the Florida Keys or Montauk, of course. Summer holiday? Sagaponack, as if you had to ask. The Calloway car? Brought to you by Land Rover.

Not only is all of this wearyingly precious, it isn’t very realistic. How the Calloways afford this lifestyle (he is a book editor, after all) is partly attributed to the noblesse oblige of their wealthy friends, but the rest is anybody’s guess. And when the Calloway family contemplates moving from TriBeCa to Harlem for more space, Russell acts as if he is being summoned to Hell itself. What’s next? Might Russell have to stay home one night and tuck into a turkey sandwich? 

And Corrine’s introduction as a screenwriter borders on the absurd. Mr. McInerney is not content to have Mrs. Calloway simply do honorable work in a foundation dedicated to feeding the homeless — she has to have also written a screenplay that was produced into a movie. This on her first crack at the craft, apparently, and for no less than Graham Greene’s “The Heart of the Matter”! This is especially odd for a woman who shows no particular literary or film interest the reader can detect. Then, by the novel’s end, she does it again. Two for two with screenplays? Bob Towne is asking for the secret. 

But never mind. “Bright, Precious Days” is not a novel you approach with tweezers and a microscope. It is a rollicking entertainment buoyed by a keen social eye — the author seems both accurate and genuinely aggrieved in his portrait of a contemporary Manhattan bereft of its bohemian heritage.

And if the characterizations in this novel are often skin-deep, Mr. McInerney’s two protagonists are well drawn. In fact, he has always done well with his female characters, and this newest installment of Corrine Calloway may be his most complete yet. It is a tribute to the author that her affair is somehow rendered sympathetic and even necessary, and the reader finds her no less likable for it. 

Will there be another Calloway novel in the next decade for Mr. McInerney? I suspect so. One day, we may even see an omnibus titled “The Calloway Novels.” If we do, it will go a long way toward telling us about the lives of a certain milieu in N.Y.C. at the end of the last century and the beginning of this one. 

Who would begrudge Mr. McInerney the honor? Only the jealous. 

 


Kurt Wenzel’s novels include “Lit Life.” He lives in Springs.

Jay McInerney lives part time in Bridgehampton.