Said of the 1960s, it’s also true of the 1980s: If you remember them you weren’t there. Reasons to forget? You worked and partied too long and hard and did too many drugs to maintain the rigorous schedule. You’ve repressed the embarrassing struggle to appear above your socio-economic status. And let’s not forget your failed attempts to date a model. Yeah, the drug of choice may have been different in the 80s. But the amnesia of indulgence was not.
Jay McInerney’s work has perfect recall of that decade of social climbing, cocaine and sexual conquest, a time when 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, Collin McNab, laments at the unhappy age of 32, “Still waiting for my adult life to begin.”
McInerney’s perfect capture of a particular American economic and social generation rivals John Cheever and F. Scott Fitzgerald in its sharp eye and ironic 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. You can’t have everything, even one more toot of Bolivian Marching Powder, seems more like it.
It’s easy to like most of these stories just on the cheap thrills they deliver. Drug use and drinking, the pursuit of sex with a woman or man more strange than stranger, the promising of arriving or, at minimum, being accepted into a higher station, cheating and getting away with it; all solidly tabloid-grade stuff of the kind displayed at grocery store checkout lines. On the other hand, the suffering strikes home: overindulgence of drugs and alcohol, the failed promise of sex, being cheated on and not being elevated to higher status. McInerney knows false promise when he sees it and is expert at exploiting its consequences.
Some of these stories will be familiar. Seven of them were tagged on to his 1998 novel Model Behavior. Others 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 (inspiration for the disappointing Michael J. Fox film of the same name). Russell and Corrine Calloway, the heroes of his 2006 novel The Good Life, are introduced 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 girl friend, suggested by gossips greater than I to be the model for Story of My Life‘s central figure, was the mistress of a major politician (we wouldn’t mention John Edwards’ name). There’s a story here– “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 somehow makes his writing more attractive. 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 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 early work. The author seems aware of this; it’s as if he‘s set he’s satisfied with less. In the most recent story, he tells of a writer whose women “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 irony in what he hopes for. Not surprisingly, compared to his (apparently) bygone ‘80s self, he comes up short.–Cabbage Rabbit