BOOK REVIEW: Bright, Precious Days by Jay McInerney – March 2020

Reviewed by Jane Tompkins

Jay McInerney belongs to a group of writers that took New York by storm in the eighties. Called the brat pack (other members were Bret Easton Ellis and Tama Janowitz), they were influenced by pop culture (especially TV), drugs, and the desire to be entertaining—or at least riveting—no matter what. At the time, I was working my way up the academic ladder and had no time for contemporary fiction, so I missed them completely. A friend recommended that I read this novel, McInerney’s seventh (published in 2016), and third in a trilogy starring Russell and Corinne Calloway, New York couple extraordinaire.

He’s a well-known literary publisher with financial problems and she, formerly of Merrill, Lynch, a mover and shaker in the city’s effort to feed the hungry. Their doings were compelling enough to keep me reading to the end, but I couldn’t figure out why my friend had wanted me to read the book, or, for that matter, why McInerney had written it—aside from the fact that all writers need to keep their publisher satisfied, bread on the table, and their fans coming back for more.

Practical necessities aside, I kept trying to understand what McInerney wanted Bright, Precious Days to achieve. At first the prose seems tired and flat, as if he were grinding it out. It picks up when the plot takes hold but, with a few exceptions, never rises above the level of skilled narration. Local interest depends chiefly on our being fed tidbits of insider knowledge of the New York scene: the right places to live in Manhattan (Brooklyn is never mentioned; Queens doesn’t exist), restaurants so exclusive that you can’t find them, “in” sorts of people to associate with—mainly artists and financiers—clubs to belong to, clothing to wear, benefits to attend, dinner parties to give, summer houses to own, and so on. Status symbols are everywhere. At some moments McInerney seems to relish his knowledge and implied possession of such things, and at others to satirize them as empty and frivolous. I could never tell where he stood. A publisher of literary fiction, the main character wants to be identified with whatever higher values are implied in the idea of “literature,” that is, he wants to be above all the dinners, the wines, the parties—but at the same time they are his life support.

The plot, consisting mainly of various marital infidelities—some able to be sympathized with, others heartless and callow—has similar difficulties. The author could be trying to empathize with people’s human needs, with the fact that marriage can’t meet all of them, that it’s possible to love more than one person at a time, and that opportunities for sexual adventure are afforded people as well off and well placed as his characters are. Or, he could be criticizing these people for giving in to cravings that they know can only lead to pain and misery, for taking advantage of the freedom that privilege brings, for not appreciating all that they already have and imagining that the next new person can bring them happiness. Or perhaps, like Petrarch in the introduction to the Canzoniere, the hundred sonnets celebrating his love for Laura, he hopes to find pity, if not forgiveness.

I was so puzzled that I decided to read Bright Lights, Big City, the novel that made McInerney famous when first published in 1984. It’s the story of a young man (the author himself) who comes to New York hoping to make it as writer. He works as a fact checker at a top flight magazine (it’s The New Yorker, where McInerney held the same position), and loses it for failing to  complete a difficult assignment, mainly because he can’t stay away from drinking and drugging long enough to do the work. He gives in to the blandishments of a friend who knows the New York club scene and where to score drugs—all the friend wants to do is party and get wasted—and this is his undoing. But he’s young and full of life and ambition, and at the end vows to start from scratch, learning how to live all over again.

The writing is bold and felicitous. Here, the narrator is reacting to his wife’s having left him permanently, and with no warning:

     You considered violence and you considered reconciliation. But what you are left with is a premonition of the way your life will fade behind you, like a book you read too quickly, leaving a dwindling trail of images and emotions, until all you can remember is a name. 

   In a moment of insight, the young man regrets having lived too fast and too carelessly, and the sentence rhythm comes to a satisfying close. The informal tone engages readers and makes us feel close to the speaker. You feel you’re getting things from the horse’s mouth–another version of the “insider” effect the author creates through status-symbol dropping in Bright, Precious Days, but edgier. The book has originality and flair.

By the time he writes his seventh novel, McInerney has fulfilled his dream of becoming a presence on the New York literary scene, and, in Bright, Days, is still writing about it. But now that he lives it, the dream is not fulfilling. There are in fact no bright, precious days in the narrator’s life. He has financial worries, an unfaithful wife, and is obsessed with maintaining his own status. He’s confused, unhappy, and torn between conflicting goals. I’m glad to have learned about McInerney, but can’t recommend this novel. He’s become an example of what David Foster Wallace, in 1987, termed Nieman Marcus nihilism, though McInerny’s version is cultural as well as material. One wants to say to him, get real.~