New York novelist Jay McInerney never expected the relationship to last 25 years.
“Absolutely not,” says McInerney, whose first novel featuring complicated couple Russell and Corrine Calloway was 1992 bestseller Brightness Falls. “I really just saw the book as a one-off—my first attempt to do a more panoramic view of the city.”
“My earlier novels had been very sharply focused, single voice, voice-driven novels,” says the Bright Lights, Big City author. “Brightness Falls is my fourth, and I wanted to do a much broader social canvas—I sort of had Balzac and Thackeray at the back of my mind—trying to engage the cultural and economic undercurrents in contemporary New York through these characters.”
2006’s The Good Life saw the couple confronting the cataclysm of 9/11, becoming parents, dealing with infidelity, and facing burgeoning money woes. In Bright, Precious Days, they’re approaching their 25th anniversary amid the 2008 presidential primary. Youth is fading, gentrification is intensifying, and their marriage is precarious.
“The best marriages, like the best boats, are the ones that ride out the storms,” McInerney writes. “They take on water; they shudder and list, very nearly capsize, then right themselves and sail onward toward the horizon.”
In Bright, Precious Days, Russell is still a literary editor and publisher of greater renown than profit. This time he’s placed his faith in a volatile literary wunderkind named Jack Carson, a junkie genius not unlike his deceased best friend, Jeff Pierce (the McInerney character from Brightness Falls), and a terrorist-abduction memoir from a writer who’s burned him before. Meanwhile, Corrine spends her workdays distributing fresh produce to food deserts, as executive director of hunger-fighting nonprofit Nourish New York.
“Russell liked, especially after a few drinks, to divide humanity into two opposing teams: Art and Love versus Power and Money,” McInerney writes. “It was kind of corny, but she was proud that he believed it, and of his loyalty to his team. For better and for worse, it was her team, too.”
While the salaries Art and Love-types may provide for a comfortable life, it’s not enough to buy the TriBeCa loft they’ve been renting since time immemorial. When the co-op goes condo, the landlord’s opening offer for their apartment is $1.5 million.
“How was it that after working so hard and by many measures succeeding and even excelling in his chosen field, he couldn’t afford to save this house that meant so much to his family?” he writes. “Their neighbors seemed to manage, thousands of people no smarter than he was—less so, most of them—except perhaps in their understanding of the mechanics of acquisition.”
In Manhattan, the Calloways are merely wealth-adjacent. McInerney’s gleeful satirization of their superrich friends and colleagues—including the private showing, for privileged children, of a wild “liger” in a Manhattan home—makes for the book’s funniest moments.
“Some of the most fun I had in writing this book was the satire,” he says. “Part of my job is to make fun of pretensions and excessive behavior in New York—even if, ultimately, my sensibility is fairly romantic.”
Still, the focus is on the family. Whether the Calloways, as a couple, can weather the various upheavals of a swiftly tilting Manhattan is Bright, Precious Days’s big unknown.
“Manhattan certainly has become less dirty and dangerous and more expensive and a little shinier and more gentrified,” McInerney says. “Like my characters, I’m somewhat nostalgic for those days, but I haven’t lost my enthusiasm.... I still think Manhattan represents an ideal and a destination for ambitious young people.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.