It’s hard to imagine that Jay McInerney had a trilogy in mind when he first wrote Brightness Falls back in 1992, yet with the publication of Bright, Precious Days that is what we find ourselves with – a seemingly accidental trio of books concerning Russell and Corrine Calloway. When The Good Life appeared in 2006, it seemed like a good and natural choice – return to well-loved characters to see how they reacted to 9/11. Lots of big writers were doing it, why not the Gatsby of the scene? It sold a fraction of what was expected but was a novel that stood shoulder to shoulder with its predecessor. Russell and Corrine were types – the types you’d find in a Woody Allen movie, actually, and the comparison feels apposite – he a New York editor and publisher with a growing reputation, she leaving her highly paid job behind to run a soup kitchen for those helping out at the base of the blasted towers. Of course, she had an affair but Russell was no saint.
The same rules more or less apply here in Bright, Precious Days which shifts the action forward seven years (to the eve of the global economic crash) – Russell is heading up his own publishing house now, albeit shored up by investment from hedge fund sorts, and Corrine has a food co-operative on the go, helping to get nutritious food to, and encourage better choices amongst, the poor (even as she harbours regrets about the adaptation of Graham Greene’s Heart of the Matter she wrote the screenplay for which disappeared without a trace). Russell and Corrine are still mourning, in their own ways, the death of their friend Jeff, an up and coming writer who debuted with a novel about the three of them and then died (in Brightness Falls) – and we return to those days, briefly, here, to give Corrine (and McInerney) an in to resolve the issues we confront at the close of the book. What we get, for the most part, are parties, benefits, galas, exhibitions, fishing trips and meals out (in fact they eat out so much and eating and drinking play such a big part in their lives that it becomes a bone of contention between Russell and his missus), the stock in trade of high class New York (although Russell and Corrine are not completely of their breed, they rely on freebies and aren’t afraid to ride the coattails of their wealthier compadres). Of course, Luke – Corrine’s squeeze from The Good Life – returns and whatever was left unresolved at the end of the previous book is, it’s fair to say, resolved here (and, of course, Russell is not whiter than white – he visits an old flame, he visits a high class bordello – although he is a character you read wondering if McInerney, now on his fourth marriage, is inclined to be more forgiving to the husband than to the wife, given his own experiences).
Now. There’s already been at least one savage review of this book (by Alex Preston in the Guardian, we’re not linking to it, if you’re interested it’s easy enough to find) – and it tells a story of McInerney as a writer with one good book in him (Bright Lights, Big City) and then a career of diminishing returns, which we think is unfair and unjust. That isn’t to say, though, that we would wholly exonerate the book of the odd brickbat or two. It feels convenient for McInerney to return to the Calloways to treat the economic meltdown (and the crisis is convenient, too, in that it gives McInerney a climax), an easy in, when it might have behoved McInerney to write a tougher book with a fresh set of characters (but then we say this knowing that sometimes characters call to writers and you can’t ignore the call, right?). Because it’s the Calloways, we settle in (perhaps even grumpily settle in, because these guys all have quite a nice life, you know, and it’s sometimes hard to put up with their carping) – but now we read with the last true vision of New York in our readerly brains (Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life) – and that book works harder and feels truer than Bright, Precious Days (although the Lish book didn’t sell either so what the hell do we know, right?). So this book pales in comparison to that. We also wonder whether the Calloways’ marriage could take everything it takes (and when we compare that to McInerney’s own life, we wonder if maybe it would be truer for these characters to be on their third or fourth marriage now as well).
At the same time, though, the fairytale of New York that McInerney paints is a reassuring one. If you’ve ever enjoyed a Woody Allen film (and we know there are many who would be disgusted by the thought – which, again, we are not going to get into here), you’ll enjoy this. The very opening of the book reads like the opening of Manhattan – you can hear the first lines as though read by Woody:
“Once, not so very long ago, young men and women had come to the city because they loved books, because they wanted to write novels or short stories or even poems, or because they wanted to be associated with the production and distribution of those artifacts and with the people who created them.”
We sense (we’d even go so far as to hope) that this is the last outing of the Calloways and that’s okay. We didn’t have as bad a time as Alex Preston did (but then we don’t tend to read books by authors we know we don’t like and then review them; we don’t really understand that as a practice).
Any Cop?: Provided you approach this knowing McInerney’s schtick, then Bright, Precious Days is as good as the other books in the trilogy and that a reading of the whole trilogy is not a bad way to spend your time.