The free-fall stock-market crash of October 1987, which thickens the plot of Jay McInerney’s new novel, Brightness Falls, was quite entertaining if you didn’t happen to work on Wall Street or own any stocks. Similarly, McInerney’s new novel is quite entertaining if you don’t happen to be one of the lightly fictionalized New York writers or editors who appear in it. What McInerney did to a distinguished magazine resembling The New Yorker in his celebrated first novel, Bright Lights, Big City, is done here to the publishing business and its sacred rituals, such as lunch: ”For Russell, the planning and execution of lunch could consume half a day. He didn’t doubt that the earlier hunter-gatherers had had it easier…impale a mammoth on your spear, wait for lightning to strike a nearby tree in order to provide cooking fire, no problem.”
McInerney deploys a droll, slightly whimsical descriptive prose and epigrammatic dialogue while ushering his preening characters in and out of fashionable parties and restaurants. But there’s more than a comedy of (mostly bad) manners to Brightness Falls, which is set in the already dim and distant Manhattan of 1987 and exhibits such artifacts of the period as yellow ”power” ties and leveraged buyouts. Like Tom Wolfe in The Bonfire of the Vanities, McInerney assembles a large cast of predators and orchestrates the grotesque social contrasts of the city in order to make corrosive points about the excesses of the ’80s. But unlike Wolfe, he also gets a tender, wistful purchase on the slippery decade by rendering it through the experience of a generation — his own — that spent those years passing from reckless youth to the brink of youthful middle age.
The book is built around the marriage, made in heaven but going to hell, of Russell and Corrine Calloway. She is a stockbroker who does volunteer work at a homeless shelter; he is an up-and-coming editor at an eminent publishing house. At 31, they are already groping under the bed and in the dusty corners of their lives for their lost or misplaced youth. Corrine is still as pretty and witty as the young Katharine Hepburn, but her husband’s attention and libido seem to be wandering. Russell, once an aspiring poet, looks at his growling, owlish mentor, the editor Harold Stone, and wonders if fate has made a reservation for him at the same cynical table. The fast-track, fast-buck mentality seems to be consuming everyone, and those who haven’t sold out are bottoming out — notably Russell’s closest college friend who, after an acclaimed book of short stories, is all too faithfully living up to the self-destructive-writer archetype. Russell, drawn into a leveraged buyout scheme, finds himself in a conspiracy against not only his company but his marriage and his own best instincts; the nuances of Corrine’s distress as he falls in with a brazen blond investment banker and a sleazy corporate raider are especially well done.
The title comes from Thomas Nashe’s 1593 poem ”A Litany in Time of Plague” (”Brightness falls from the air”). AIDS crouches in the shadows of this novel. Light in touch but serious in intent, Brightness Falls is about lost promise and the intricate intertwining of people’s fates. It negotiates its way from comedy to elegy much less clumsily than Bright Lights, Big City did, possibly because this time McInerney is really letting go of the ’80s and his own sybaritic New York exertions. Having married his third wife, Helen Bransford, he has moved to Nashville; it will be interesting to see whether, literarily speaking, he invented ’80s Manhattan or ’80s Manhattan invented him. A-