Inspiring Older Readers
How It Ended by Jay McInerney
There was a time in the 80s when Jay McInerney was seen as the brightest of bright young things, the bona fide chronicler of Reagan’s yuppie America, and especially of its aspirational, rising generation of East Coast writers and creatives and money men.
Beginning with Brightness Falls in the early 90s, he has now chronicled the fortunes of this elite in three novels, seen through the eyes of glamorous young married couple Russell and Corrine Calloway and their circle, mapping their desires and deceits and disillusionment almost as magisterially as Updike did for the distinctly more blue collar Angstrom family in his ‘Rabbit’ quartet.
McInerney has always divided opinion, but in recent years that opinion seems to have become generally sourer. Rather than distanced chronicler of an aspirational generation, many now see McInerney as exemplifying that generation, with his homes on several continents, and his liking for vintage luxury watches, collectable cars and collectable heiress wives. That may be stretching the truth somewhat for the sake of convenience, but if it is, it is not stretching it very far.
Anyway, be all that as it may, a few days ago I found myself thinking that I hadn’t read any McInerney in at least a couple of decades, but instead of pulling down Brightness Falls (the novel I still think of as his masterpiece), I reached instead for a slender volume of short stories from 2000 called How It Ended.
Largely pre-internet, pre-social media, pre-digital revolution (indeed, the only computers mentioned are those that belong to city traders), and most importantly pre-9/11, these stories take place mainly during the 80s and early 90s, and despite their cynicism and self-centredness, oh what a lost and somehow more innocent age they seem to depict.
His cast of ambitious yuppies, urban losers, creatures on the cusp of celebrity and those doomed with the fore-knowledge that they will never rise higher than the “spectator class” will do little to endear themselves to you, but McInerney’s diamond sharp prose, with its marvellous compacted world-weary insights and throwaway observations, will. I had forgotten just how terrific his writing can be.
In these stories McInerney’s generation are slowly growing up. They are “pioneers of the state of adulthood”, learning how to live, discovering an adoptable lifestyle – and McInerney is a poet of lifestyle journalism, turning brands into flights of lyricism. He isn’t the only writer of that period capable of doing this – it was, after all, something of an 80s trope – but he is one of the subtlest and best.
One of the finest stories is Smoke. It features a young couple that seem to be early prototypes for the Russell and Corinne of Brightness Falls – in that novel they are the Calloways, in this story they are the Callahans. She is a rising stockbroker, he a rising writer. Fame is beckoning, wealth, the responsibilities of adulthood – even if only that of exemplifying a viable lifestyle – and partly for health reasons and partly companionship they agree to stop smoking. His wife cracks first, but the story has a Chekhovian depth to it, a hinterland that seems to recede far into the distance, to stretch deep into the future – and in its final sentences, his wife’s admission, Russell hears not just the collapse of their joint no smoking project, but the dying star of all their hopes and ambitions. He sees a teenage friend, Dino Signorelli, whose failure and acceptance of convention and mediocrity they had both at first pitied but then come to ridicule, “…standing alone on a treeless prairie, hatless, leaning into the cold wind”.
Whether this rereading will prompt me to keep up with McInerney’s more recent novels is doubtful, but this little volume of short stories is a great way to remember what made him special. Here’s just a taste. Russell and Corinne are having a boozy, smoky dinner party and Russell is listening to his wife. He realises that all the publishing people are talking about the stock market, while all the financial people are talking about books and movies. Except for Corinne. Drawing thoughtfully on her cigarette she tells a bemused guest that “Symbols work in the market the same way they do in literature”. She goes on:
“There’s, like, a symbolic order of things underneath the real economy. A kind of dream life of the economy that affects the market as much as the hard facts, the stats. The secret urges and desires of consumers and producers work up toward the surface. Market analysis is like dream interpretation. One thing stands for another – a new hairstyle means a rise in gold and a fall in bonds.”
Marx and Engels put it differently. They said, “All that is solid melts into air…”, but I feel they would have recognised Corinne’s analysis too. Certainly, like Russell, they would have found her fascinating.