No one captures the superficial concerns of the upper echelons of Manhattan society like Jay McInerney. In his seven novels and two collections of short stories stretching from the acquisitive '80s across to the more sober present day, he has captured the zeitgeist of the times as experienced by these privileged social butterflies. Cocaine use, parties, clubs, modelisers (men who can choose to date only models), early marriage among those media and banking darlings blessed with looks, success and money - McInerney has made them his trademark.
Occasionally his irony has been subtle so that his stories seemed almost to relish the glassy, cocaine-fuelled lifestyle of their protagonists. But more often than not, the lives of these media and financial high-players unravelled, their greed and egocentricity leading to their own downfall in the guise of lovers, spouses and even employers abandoning them.
The short story format holds certain advantages for McInerney. His crisp prose is ideally suited to rapid fleshing of vapid characters, and the variety of humankind on offer in a volume of stories gives his sharp wit many delicious targets. What is lost is the depth that certain of his novels brought to some of his characters - the disillusionment felt by Corrine Calloway at her fickle and greedy husband Russell in Brightness Falls, for example, which precipitated her affair there and her desire for escape with the more morally-conscious Luke in the peri-9/11 follow-up The Good Life.
But this sacrifice of continuity and long-term investment in his characters is compensated for by the fascination exerted by the more impressionistically drawn egos on parade in the short stories. The Last Bachelor, his latest collection of these, was published in 2009 and released in paperback earlier this year. As with his previous collection How It Ended, McInerney's wicked insight into the foibles of his fellow residents in the wormy Apple makes the stories in this collection something to relish and savour. And some of the important characters from his novels surface again in sketches which add to the picture already drawn of them, with more minor characters flitting around in the shadows.
In Sleeping With Pigs, a young man dissects his broken marriage. He met his ex-wife Blythe when she was the darling of the Manhattan cocktail party circuit and he found it difficult to accept the changes in her once they were married and she showed more enthusiasm for the six months a year they spent in rural Tennessee than the six months lived in the urban bustle of Manhattan. Blythe's maternal instinct is not assuaged by their one son and she devotes herself to their menagerie of animals which include a pot-bellied pig called Sweetheart. There are some classic comic moments, such as smuggling Sweetheart onto a plane. As is characteristic for McInerney, contemporary references abound - Annie Liebowitz and Jasper Johns to name but two. More substantially, McInerney comes out with those pithy comments that make you realise, time and time again, that he's not just a subservient witness but a scythe-voiced critic, and, moreover, one whose facade of ennui hides a perceptive insight into relationships. His insight is almost always casual, throwaway; almost delivered with a self deprecating yawn :
'Over time almost anything can come to seem normal in the course of a marriage: food fetishes, sexual kinks, even in-laws.'
Uncharacteristically for McInerney, this story ends on a surging hopeful note, a glint of optimism in his characteristic dark palette.
I Love You Honey returns to more bleak territory - the couple whose marriage seems doomed to a cycle of infidelities and retaliatory avengements. Liam, a Catholic, is married to Lora, whose substitute for religion is Xanax. McInerney' s writing is at its sharp taloned best:
'Lora seemed to have finely calibrated her chilliness to a degree or two above the freezing point.'
And his laid-back similes carry similar clout:
'After Mass he didn't feel he could return directly to the apartment. It would be like smoking a cigarette after running a marathon.'
Lora chances on the perfect vengeful come-back to Liam's casual affairs (one of which is with a woman called Sasha - perhaps Luke's wife from The Good Life?), and her glueing of passive-aggression to this most cruel form of punishment caused a frisson of shuddering horror in this reader.
The Madonna of Turkey Season presents the more rarely seen side of McInerney - that of sensitivity to vulnerable characters. A father and his three sons, Brian, Mike and Aidan, are left devastated by the loss of the mother of the family. The father remains faithful to his ex-wife's memory:
'Our father never brought another woman to the table, though many tried to invite themselves, and our young girlfriends remarked on how handsome he was, and what a waste it was. 'I had my great love, how could I settle for anything less,' he'd say as he poured himself another Smirnoff and the neighbour widows and divorce'es dashed themselves against the windowpanes like birds.'
McInerney conveys the family dynamics in his concise way:
'Mike had a fierce stubborn honesty and a big hardwood chip on his shoulder, which was in some measure, a reflection of his belief that Brian had already claimed the upper bunk bed of life before he came along and had a chance to choose for himself.'
Family catastrophe ensues when Brian oversteps the implicitly understood boundary between fact and fiction. Many female writers like Mary Lawson, Sue Miller and Heather Clay eloquently capture the turmoil of emotions inside strong, silent, bereaved men. McInerney's method is different but as potent, using the spare male language of events rather than the more analytical female one of feelings.
Everything Is Lost is one of two stories here with a similar pattern - a woman passionately in love is made to reconsider her relationship because of her boyfriend's reactions to seemingly unimportant events. Here, Sabrina starts the tale off smug in her love for her ex writing tutor at NYU, Kyle, and plans a surprise birthday party for him. She is all set for the inconvenience of Kyle's curiosity and even jealousy at the secretive phone calls she is making and receiving, but, stolid and oblivious, he fails to show any such problematic observation. What Sabrina thought she wanted - a clear path to do what she wants without nosiness from Kyle - starts to irk her. The story successfully showcases the contrariness of human behaviour although the way in which every man Sabrina met makes a move on her is slightly simplistic and cartoonish; too black and white for a master of shades of grey like McInerney.
Invisible Fences moves to the uglier, darker side of the partying lifestyle. Susan is a lawyer and Dean, her husband, is a bookshop manager. Ostensibly a respectable couple, they actually indulge in a voyeuristic sex life where Dean gets aroused by watching Susan have sex with male strangers. As with all the stories the action is firmly rooted in contemporary times by cultural references - here the music of The Killers. McInerney probes the apparent but often illusive complicity of both individuals in a couple into swinging. There is some lovely writing here which adds to the atmosphere - 'a gibbous harvest moon hangs over the interstate, leaking an orange glow into the surrounding sky.'
The March revisits Corrine Calloway from Brightness Falls and The Good Life. It is 2003 and Corrine has arranged to meet two friends to join in an organised march against the Iraq War. Just as she chanced on Luke post 9/11 in The Good Life, she happens on him again now, and her heart leaps. Corrine and the reader are taken back to the end of their affair and left wondering, as one often does in life, 'what if...'
Summary Judgement is a juicy little foray into the world of gold-diggers. It's fun to read and concludes satisfyingly but is a lighter offering in this box of delights, the protagonist Alysha de Sante being too hideous to believe in, though on further contemplation and perusal of the media, such vilely two-dimensional characters do seem to exist.
The Waiter features another grotesque woman, this time an imperious Italian snob, Marella, who denigrates waiters in an anecdote she tells to the male narrator, a young post-grad student, and Cara, the woman with whom he's in lust. There are some laughs here - most notably in the exchange where Marella refers to 'a corrector' and the narrator asks her what a corrector is. (Cara hisses 'Honestly Seth. She means character.') Like many of the other vignettes, it' a snapshot of a moment in time, and here, as in Sleeping with Pigs, the ending is upbeat.
Penelope on the Pond repeats the pattern of Everything Is Lost in that the female protagonist changes her feelings about her boyfriend in a short space of time and unbeknown to the boyfriend. Here the story is related in the first-person and the narrator is Alison Poole, who was the narrator of McInerney's third novel, Story of My Life. Alison is having an affair with a married Democrat Senator. She starts to have second thoughts when the Senator - who has already regurgitated things she's said to him in public broadcasts, passing them off as his own words - does not respond as she would like him to when she tells him about an ardent political blogger suitor.
This recurrence of themes rises again in Putting Daisy Down, when Bryce, who has been striving for membership of a golf club for two years, is publically shown up by his pregnant wife who reveals a letter sent to her by Bryce's mistress. There are echoes of the scene in The Good Life where Russell Calloway's ex-mistress Trish presents Russell's wife Corrine with written evidence of Russell's lustful e mails. Here, Bryce struggles to resolve the situation with his wife but, as in I Love You Honey, Bryce's vulnerability is partly his Catholicism. The other point where his wife can attack is Bryce's cat Daisy, who he adores. There are plenty of well observed scenes in this tale, mainly those centring on the male camaraderie shown by Bryce's golfing buddies who rally round. This excerpt is from the moments after Bryce's silently incandescent wife has left after travelling to the golf course to hand Bryce the letter she's received from his mistress:
'Without a word she turned and drove away. The men watched silently until the cart finally disappeared behind the rise of the thirteenth tee, and then resumed their play, Bryce's partners respectfully somber, their fraternal compassion compounded in equal parts of selfish relief and empathetic dread. Their goodwill seemed only to increase as his game fell apart.'
The penultimate story of the twelve is The Debutante's Return. McInerney has set two of his stories in this collection in the South and he is remarkably adept at switching his acuity from the brusque pace of life in Manhattan to the slower but more suffocating environs and residual simmering racial inequalities of Tennesse. In this story, a dutiful daughter, Faye, returns from NYC to Nashville when her mother suffers a stroke. When she arrives, it seems that the stroke has precipitated other cognitive problems resulting in her mother showing signs and symptoms of dementia. Being back home causes Faye to reassess her perceptions about her childhood. And her problems aren't limited to her mother's illness - her swaggering brother has grown up with a sense of entitlement and begins the process of looting his mother's house. Faye is at a loss for ways of stopping him, but events pan out in a rather pleasing if unexpected way.
Finally, The Last Bachelor is the story that ends the collection. Like the previous tale, it is set in the South, here in Tennessee. A woman approaching middle age, Ginny, sees her ex, A.G. Jackson, flirting with her niece, and the experience brings back memories of her time with him. A.G is getting married that weekend. McInerney paints a wonderfully vivid, almost cinematic tableau of wedding preparations at A.G's home and creates a very plausible character in the confident, buffoonish A.G, revealing his vulnerabilities by revisiting his past.
As with McInerney's novels, the reader is often left wondering who the real winners and losers are. Happiness is often a transitory emotion or a dream, and the ease of life usually brings more problems - drugs, alcohol, opportunities for infidelity - than it resolves. This is a colourful cascade of human life, revealed in all its weaknesses. McInerney remains one of our foremost chroniclers of modern domestic life among the privileged in The US.