Reviews — From the August 2016 issue

Goodbye to All What?

The return of the Brat Pack

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Lou Reed, a symbol of the cool New York City of the old days, also figures in McInerney’s Bright, Precious Days. A couple is thinking of moving uptown, or even out of town, or at least the wife is. Eventually they buy a house in Harlem. TriBeCa, she says, is no longer “funky and cheap . . . the artists have been replaced by bankers and trust fund brats.” “Lou Reed and James Rosenquist still live here,” her husband says. He knows, though, that he is losing this battle:

What he wanted to say was that being a resident not only of Manhattan but of downtown was an irreducible core of his identity. He was as much — if not more — a New Yorker as those who found themselves here through the accident of birth. . . . This was the city he had chosen of all the places in the world; to live anywhere else would feel like exile.

The mockery is sympathetic but it is mockery, and of this crop McInerney is the writer who is funniest and most precise about the view from New York City, that special theory of exceptionalism. Everything outside the city is unreal. Of course, the city and its inhabitants are unreal, too, but they know how unreal they are, and in any case their unreality is much more interesting than anyone else’s.

This pattern of thought was already present in the opening pages of Bright Lights, Big City (1984). Our hero, who addresses himself and us as “you,” is stoned and sad and out of control. “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning,” he says. Translation: This is just the kind of guy you are, but unlike the others, trapped in a drearily accurate idea of themselves, you prefer to believe you are someone else, whatever the evidence. Exceptionalism doesn’t have to be proved, just doggedly dreamed.

There is pathos, even glamour, in these illusions. It has to be felt in the prose, though, and it is very hard to catch in another medium. This is why the film version of Bright Lights (1988) seems so dated and maudlin. The protagonist has lost his job at what but for the laws of libel would be The New Yorker, his mother has died, and he can’t leave off the cocaine; he has nowhere to go. What we are missing from the novel is his bouncy jokes (“the dawn’s surly light”), and sentences like this one:

But what you are left with is a premonition of the way your life will fade behind you, like a book you have read too quickly, leaving a dwindling trail of images and emotions, until all you can remember is a name.

We still catch some self-pity here — the name is Amanda, the wife who has left him — so the general theory circles back to the self. But we can recognize the fading effect even if our companions are still happily with us.

McInerney’s readers have already met the TriBeCa couple, in Brightness Falls (1992) and The Good Life (2007). They are Russell and Corrine Calloway. He is a publisher who sees himself as a latter-day Max Perkins but may be more of a belated Gordon Lish; she is a former investment banker whose life is vanishing into her charitable work for various expensive organizations on what she thinks of as the “wealthy, skinny island” of Manhattan. The new novel begins around 2006, but soon the last Harry Potter book comes out, the 2008 election arrives, and the stock market crashes. The marriage runs into various kinds of trouble, and so does Russell’s career. McInerney’s prose in the book as a whole is rather bland, as if steady-state naturalism about these times of ours were more than enough, without any irritable reaching after stylistic excitement. But here, as elsewhere in his writing, there are terrific comic set pieces — in one scene, a drunk and high dinner-party guest kills a pet ferret after mistaking it for a rat, and in another, Russell is chased around Lower Manhattan by a woman he thought he could ask for some literary advice without invoking his old erotic relation with her.

There are elements of Brat Pack branding and competitiveness in the novel. Russell is proud of having had a table at a Village gastropub “before it became one of the toughest seats in town,” and there has been a newfound interest in the Eighties “on the part of those who were too young to have really experienced that decade.” This is good news for Russell, since he has just reprinted the books of his old friend Jeff Pierce, who died of AIDS at the height of the crisis. There is even a movie version of one in the works, with Corrine as scriptwriter. But the novel’s main discussions of the 1980s resemble the elusive mentions in Janowitz’s book. “New York in the Eighties,” a young Southern writer says. “That must’ve been rad.” Russell’s friend replies, “We didn’t know it was the Eighties at the time.” Corrine adds, “Let’s not get nostalgic for the era of muggings and graffiti and crack vials in the hallway.” When a young woman at a gallery opening says, “You guys are so lucky you were around then,” Corrine agrees that the Eighties were “memorable” — “Except that, as they say, if you can remember them, then you probably weren’t there.” And then she reflects but does not report on how frightened she was in those days, her mood caught by one of the most vivid phrases in the novel, “the dread and menace that was the psychic weather of the city back then.” Back then: for all the other resemblances of failed or averted recall, this is far from the feeling of dead old worlds that Janowitz conjures up with the same phrase.

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