With Bright, Precious Days, Jay McInerney dishes up a third helping of the Manhattan lives of Russell and Corrine Calloway, a golden couple in the eyes of their friends, avatars of "Art and Love" in their own, and reminiscent of Scott and Zelda in a recurring authorial conceit.
The Calloways were brought into being in Brightness Falls (1992), which culminated in the stock market crash of 1987, thus confounding Russell's attempt to buy the publishing company for which he worked. Then came The Good Life (2006), and with it the attack on the World Trade Center and Corrine's affair with Luke McGavock. It is now 2007, and we are barrelling towards the financial collapse of 2008.
For those who have not read the preceding volumes, here is the scoop on the Calloways. They met and fell in love at an Ivy League university and married right after they graduated. Russell is a native of Michigan, or “flyover country”, in the contemptuous parlance of the east and west coasts. He stepped into his identity in the early 1980s when he came to New York and went into publishing.
Those, indeed, were the days, remembered again and again. He frequented Elaine’s, the Lion’s Head, and George Plimpton’s townhouse, rubbing shoulders, pool cues and lines of coke with the big bad boys of literature, among them Norman Mailer and Truman Capote.
Loud, large, and awkward in confined spaces, Russell has always felt that the “backdrop of Manhattan gave every gesture an added grandeur, a metropolitan gravitas”. As the previous novels have shown, the man’s reverses have been brought about to a great extent by his tendency to overestimate his own insider savvy and underestimate the guile of others.
Corrine, on the other hand, is a New Englander by birth, with a passing resemblance to Katharine Hepburn. Less infatuated with New York than Russell, she is often wearied by Manhattan’s well-heeled elite, their parties, plumage and pecking order – to say nothing of the persistent problem of what to wear. Her dramas are played out in intimate relationships: with her husband, children, sister, and lover.
The trajectory of this novel’s plot towards another Wall Street meltdown is a familiar element, but there are others. Russell has published the short stories of another self-destructive young writer; there is another shocking death; another “intervention”; another wild-beast attack – yesterday an ocelot, today a liger; and Russell is, yet again, brought low by misplaced confidence in his own publishing savvy.
Meanwhile, Corrine gives her affair with Luke a second go, and a phone call and family crisis again halt an adulterous idyll, this time in the Hamptons (last time it was Nantucket). It begins to seem, to quote Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees, like deja vu all over again.
Still, those of us who enjoyed the first two books will find pleasure in receiving news of old friends, especially of their failures and misdeeds. Bright, Precious Days provides plenty of both.
Corrine’s loose-cannon sister, Hilary, tells the Calloway children that she is really their mother, as she donated the eggs from which they sprang. That bombshell goes down at a bibulous dinner party. During another one, the family pet is mistaken for a rat and crushed to death. Another familiar character is betrayed by “pocket-dialing” his mobile, thereby beaming an extramarital tryst into the ear of his spouse.
There are intermittent bulletins on New York real estate, which is, after all, where the city’s beating heart really lies. Appallingly, the Calloways have been renters, the family of four still living in a loft in Tribeca without doorman, spa or gym, a situation that verges on vagrancy by the standards of their circle.
And, of course, there is the stock market crash itself: even though we know it’s coming, it still packs a wallop when it hits: “It seemed as if a seismic event was in progress, shifting the tectonic plates beneath the island, toppling the monuments and sucking rivers of wealth into the sewers.”
McInerney is generous with satirical vignettes of New York excess, including an oenophiliac showdown in a top-flight restaurant between Goldman Sachs traders and a venture capitalist (“all brothers in the big-ticket buzz”) and a dinner at an ultra-exclusive underground restaurant, where the horrible menu includes shucked live shrimp, crushed quail skull and cod sperm.
Amusing as they are, the set pieces hardly make up for the recycled plot elements and the sense that these characters are played out. In fact, the novel has a feeling of warmed-over zeitgeist. Maybe that is intentional – nostalgia over New York publishing’s golden age is part of Russell’s make-up.
Still, we’ve been here before, twice, and it’s time to close the door on the Calloways: homeowners at last, in an Italianate brownstone in South Harlem, or SoHa in real-estate speak.
Katherine A Powers received the 2013 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of JF Powers, 1942-1963.