By Bill Kohlhaase
Jay McInerney hasn’t forgotten. He has perfect recall of the decade’s social climbing, cocaine binges, sexual conquests, even the exact moment our base instincts won out over our naive hopes for ourselves. The stories in his new collection How It Ended may not all date to the 1980s. But that decade’s influence—much like Ronald Reagan’s sour influence on contemporary politics—is readily apparent even as time marches on. It’s a decade when we should have grown up, but didn’t. As one of McInerney’s more memorable characters laments at the unhappy age of 32, “Still waiting for my adult life to begin.”
McInerney’s perfect capture of a particular American generation rivals John Cheever and F. Scott Fitzgerald in its sharp eye and period commentary. While those two giants of American literature deal mostly with post-success disillusionment, McInerney’s characters are still striving to have-it-all; wealth, fame and the perfect relationship with a fling or two on the side. That enough is never enough is not his lesson. Enough is too much is more like it.
Many of these stories were originally aired elsewhere. Seven of them were tagged on to his 1998 novel Model Behavior. Some feature characters from previous novels and are short exercises for those longer works. “It’s Six A.M. Do You Know Where You Are?” is the seed for his first and probably best known novel Bright Lights, Big City. Russell and Corrine Calloway, the heroes of his 2006 novel The Good Life, are brought into being in the 1985 story “Smoke.” They appear again in the post-9/11 piece “The March.” There’s a story titled, just like the novel, “Story of My Life.” It should be noted that McInerney’s former girlfriend, suggested by gossips greater than I to be the model for Story of My Life’s Allison Poole, was the mistress of a major politician (we wouldn’t mention John Edwards’ name). McInerney’s book has a story, “Penelope on the Pond,” about a similar affair.
It’s no secret that McInerney—a former fact checker like the hero of Bright Lights, Big City, a guy who’s had relationships with models and known to party a bit himself—writes what he knows. This knowledge gives his stories a tabloid-like attraction. In “I Love You Honey,” a serial adulterer with a pregnant wife finds religion after 9/11. We can’t help wonder, if pointlessly, that the Catholic-born celebrity author has done the same.
Indeed, the world changes for McInerney’s characters after 9/11. Maybe they’ve grown up. Or maybe it just took time for the dust to settle. In “The March,” Corrine Calloway sees a policeman she had a flirtatious relationship with while working a soup line after the destruction of the World Trade Center. This time the officer is wielding a baton from horseback against Iraq war demonstrators. Corrine and her friends wonder how the same cops, the heroes to whom they served hot coffee in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, could turn on them. “What were we doing down there anyway?” she cries. All that coming together, all that possibility, splintered and lost. At the end, Corrine wants to forget family and responsibility and be “fucked senseless” by a lover she took right after the tragedy.
While the newer stories deal with familiar McInerney themes—status-seeking, family alienation, betrayal—they seem almost parodies of McInerney’s best work. In the most recent story here, he tells of a writer whose women characters “weren’t terribly complex. There was a recurring neurotic, mendacious, narcissist type that represented his old girlfriend. And then there was the nice girl . . . who the angst-ridden protagonist struggles to be worthy of.” This might be McInerney not just writing what he knows, but finding the irony in his own life.
How It Ended: New and Collected Stories by Jay McInerney; Alfred A. Knopf, hardback, 352 pages, $25.95.