Alex Clark

When less is more

Bright, Precious Days, his latest novel, is a nostalgia-soaked and not entirely successful return to old friends

When less is more
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Bright, Precious Days

Jay McInerney

Bloomsbury, pp. 397, £

It’s 2008 in Manhattan, and there’s still a brief window for the Goldman bankers to swill their ’82 Petrus before the crash, for the masters of the universe and social X-rays first sighted in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities to launch another hostile takeover or push a lettuce leaf around a $25,000-a-table benefit dinner-plate. For Russell Calloway, encountered here for the third time, following previous outings in the novels Brightness Falls and The Good Life, such decadence is both revolting and alluring: as a struggling independent publisher, he is committed to the survival of bohemianism and the life of the mind; as a bon viveur, oenophile and gourmand, he’s made his peace with sniffing round the rich men’s tables. Not for nothing does he revel in obtaining a reservation at a new underground restaurant in which fish sperm and live prawns writhing under a coating of wasabi go under the name ‘transgressive fusion’.

Bright, Precious Days is also a work of fusion, although, with the best will in the world, it would be a stretch to describe it as transgressive. It is partly an account of mid-life crisis and partly a satirical social chronicle, but its double intention is its downfall: the melancholy sense of encroaching mortality and uncomfortable self-knowledge of the former makes the endless trend-spotting seem a little, well, callow.

Neither does the immense good fortune enjoyed by Russell and his wife, Corrine, make their travails seem terribly relatable, to use a word that Russell would almost certainly excise from any manuscript that crossed his desk. Sure, they’re a touch crammed into their TriBeCa loft; then again, they can always ship out to a townhouse in the newly emerging hotspot of SoHa (South Harlem); and yes, Corrine’s film adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter didn’t do very well, but luckily she has a new career distributing food to New York’s poor, which is so much more rewarding than her earlier life at Merrill Lynch.

But it is Russell who is really prone to the wistful contemplation of the past; unsurprising, given that his early days in the city saw him playing pool with Norman Mailer and being hit on by Truman Capote. Now, he can only dream of George Plimpton as he comes across ‘a magazine called the Believer’ or has to bark ‘a million and world rights’ down the phone to a predatory agent. And the young women who come to his office haven’t even heard of Keith Richards; the fact that they want to sleep with him off the back of a boozy lunch is scant compensation.

Bright, Precious Days oozes with nostalgia — for the Manhattan of Keith Haring and Basquiat, for a youthful constitution, for cheap drink and drugs, for a time when chasing the next party was more important than getting a Miele dishwasher. There is something additionally plangent about masculinity here; Corrine, despite the fact that she is seduced into an intensely romantic affair, is more prepared to put away childish things and get real. (Although her ruminations can be a little lacking in depth, as when Russell expresses a dislike for New World wines, snob that he is: ‘Did South Africa qualify as New World? she wondered. Wasn’t it the birthplace of the species?’ Additionally, she needs to get some new friends. No woman, faced with a flushed lunch-date, has said ‘It’s… the change’ since 1956.)

There is a warmth to McInerney’s cataloguing of midlife’s moments of tristesse; and despite their comic cladding, they sometimes hit their mark. But, unlike the McInerney of Bright Lights, Big City, which so successfully merged sentiment and cynicism, he has become an over-egger. Too many dinners, too many designer labels, too much melodrama (including a surrogacy subplot that also takes in a fist-fight and a high-class brothel), too many chance meetings of unfaithful spouses in corridors. It’s not the ’80s way, but sometimes less really is more.