Bright, Precious Days by Jay McInerney – review

In this attempt to breathe new life into his old characters, Jay McInerney confirms that his best work is behind him

The Good Life, Jay McInerney’s 2006 novel, was perhaps the most underwhelming of a raft of feeble fictional responses to 9/11 by American literary grandees – DeLillo’s Falling Man, Updike’s Terrorist and Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge were almost as bad. The book sold poorly and was savaged by critics, and it therefore seems rather strange that McInerney should feel the need to wheel its characters out for yet another pseudo-satirical state-of-the-nation exercise, this time set in the years leading up to the 2008 financial crash.

McInerney’s first novel, Bright Lights Big City (1984), was a vivid, brash hymn to the cocaine-fuelled 80s. Written in the second person, so that the reader felt implicated in the increasingly manic divagations of the protagonist’s New York existence, it was an era-defining novel, and propelled McInerney (and, by association, his pal Bret Easton Ellis) to literary stardom. Their jagged, ataxic prose was hailed as the voice of a new, iconoclastic generation.

That McInerney didn’t fulfil his early promise (while Ellis arguably has) can be put down to any number of missteps – writing too many books, too swiftly; enjoying rather too much the lavish lifestyle his fame afforded him; moving away from the raw experimentalism of his debut towards a more commercial tone. Above all, though, McInerney – married to an heiress, on first-name terms with presidents and pop stars, a respected wine writer – is a cosy insider, and writers work best looking in, hungrily, from outside.

Bright, Precious Days, with its wistful nod to the title of his first novel, is the third outing for Russell and Corrine Calloway, a couple we first encountered in Brightness Falls (1992). That novel, his fourth, told of literary types sucked into a world of corporate greed, and it was here that we felt McInerney, like Ian McEwan at about the same stage in his career, moving away from early experimentalism towards a more populist approach to the form. Russell and Corrine were in their late 20s in Brightness Falls, in their 40s in The Good Life, and are now in the late stages of middle age.

It would be usual, at this point in a review, to summarise the plot, but that relies upon there being a plot to summarise. This is a novel that lurches from party to party like a gin-drunk socialite, filling the journeys between fundraisers with narrative revelations that fizzle out before they are felt. McInerney ruthlessly picks over the carcasses of his earlier novels, so that we have old material rubbing shoulders with new material, all of it suffused with the sense that here is an author who would much rather be doing something else. It has been said before that McInerney’s main problem is that he wants to write satire, but admires his upper-class, moneyed characters too much to skewer them. These are novels to make the rich feel better about themselves, with heroes who are corporate raiders and trust-fund billionaires playing out their tawdry affairs and financial shenanigans and fishing trips – yes, there’s a lot of fishing here – as if they were the stuff of great drama.

The prose, which was once so spiky and vigorous, now oscillates between the clunkingly high-flown – cinemas don’t just smell of popcorn, they are “popcorn-redolent” – and throwaway journalese. McInerney repeats words and phrases from sentence to sentence, from paragraph to paragraph, the sign of a writer dashing off his book in between more important commitments. The descriptions of New York, once one of the signature pleasures of a McInerney novel, now amount to little more than meteorological observations. The language of the book’s ending, whose revelation feels like an attempt to excuse its many faults, is over-ripe and sentimental, as if breathed towards you across a table through a mouthful of port and blue cheese.

It’s fitting that the only passages that are in the present tense in the novel are those that look back to the 1980s, rehashing material from Brightness Falls. McInerney has never really left that decade, with its greed and surface shimmer. Early on in Bright, Precious Days, a writer is described as “little more than a name associated with the period of big hair and big shoulder pads”: an apt epitaph for the career of Jay McInerney.

Bright, Precious Days is published by Bloomsbury (£18.99). Click here to buy it for £15.57


Alex Preston

The GuardianTramp

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