Ever since Jay McInerney wrote “Bright Lights, Big City”, I’ve wondered whether his was a minor talent, or possibly a major one.  When he began what’s really a series of novels around the lives of Russell and Corrine Calloway, New Yorkers wrapped up in the intellectual life of the city, it became clear that McInerney is a major talent.  His newest novel, Bright, Precious Days, puts McInerney in the front ranks of American novelists.  This new novel is virtually flawless.  The couple, now nearing fifty, married with twin children, are trying to maintain their senses of selves as members of the “Art and Love” group of New Yorkers, those whose lives wrap around publishing, discovering new literary talents, and lots of book parties, gallery openings and the like: they are, in essence, New York intellectuals.  The other group of New Yorkers–the novel takes place in the ’80s–would be the Power and Money people–I think that McInerney’s division of certain privileged New Yorkers of that era into these two categories–is perfect, having spent a great deal of time in New York myself, when I was selling art, during that same time frame.  So “Bright, Precious Days” is partly sociological novel, partly psychological, partly richly historical, but McInerney’s love of New York as a phenomenon is very real and beautifully delineated.

McInerney is paying tribute, in this particular novel, to some American greats, who’ve written about New York City, and/or the suburbs of Greater New York: the writers whose work comes to mind include John Cheever, the great chronicler of American Northeastern suburban life; Louis Auchincloss, whose novels focused around the old law firms of Manhattan, and, of course, their predecessors, Henry James and Edith Wharton. And McInerney succeeds in carrying on the tradition of the urbane New York novel, which celebrates the greatness of the City itself, which is nearly the main character in the current novel; the author’s ability to create moods of New York may well be the finest of anyone since Auchincloss’s.  But I think that McInerney’s real source is Edith Wharton, whose novels of New York life a good century or more ago probably best define the genre (I have long believed that Wharton is the better novelist than Henry James).  And great literary editors such as Maxwell Perkins and William Shawn are like the guiding angels of the book, as well.  The Calloways are victims of gentrification, of the voracious chase for money that rampaged New York in the eighties: lack of money is a constant in their lives, though they do their best, through friends and contacts, to maintain an upper middle class life, full of charity balls as well as book events; McInerney is most astute in describing Russell Calloway as an early foodie/wine fanatic, as New York began to obsess on food and wine in the 80s. The eighties as a decade are a major theme in this novel, and the author’s understanding of that New York—the ending of “old New York”, the beginning of the wild greed of Wall Street, the second houses in The Hamptons, the voracious culture industry–is brilliant.  But a lovely douceur hangs gently over the book, an elegiac tristesse for what’s lost  of  the New York defined by civility and talent.

McInerney’s understanding of the tensions within marriages of 25 years or more is brilliant, too; marriages fray, jobs are lost, money dominates, and disillusion manifests itself in the discreet (or not so) affairs to which these New Yorkers are prone, yet only one marriage will ultimately break up, within the circle of friends the Calloways have maintained since their days at Brown University: McInerney’s really kind to his very human characters, forgiving, understanding, gentle.  The Calloways virtually symbolize a New York couple of the period, and through their lives, we get a bird’s eye view of one couple trying to maintain a safe footing in the treacherous waters of ’80s New York City.

It was often a nasty decade, The City unsafe, full of muggings and frantic people trying to keep up with the monied classes, many of these no longer “old” money, but new in its most ferocious, greed-driven manners, if the word can even apply.  Edith Wharton knew how unforgiving New York itself can be to those trying to get “in”: her great novel The House of Mirth is a model of brilliant examination of the manners of New York, and Jay McInerney follows her lead in creating nearly a set piece of another New York that came and went: we also know that The Art and Love people will lose out to the Power and Money people, which, of course, they did.  McInerney’s tribute to the remnants of old New York is thus that more poignant, elegiac, nearly noble.  This is a great novel, not just a good one, and it’s even rarer given the high literary tastes/writers to which it ultimately pays tribute.  It’s been a long while since a writer created mood as well as McInerney does here, and, his writing itself, is beautiful, worthy of the predecessors to whom he pays tribute in this outstanding novel.

–Daniel Brown





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