Fear and loathing in NY
AT a gallery opening, a young woman says that New York must have been so much fun in the Eighties! The older woman she’s addressing says: “Looking over your shoulder all the time, convinced that you’d get mugged or killed. Having your purse or gold necklace snatched on Fifth Avenue. Waking up in the middle of the night with some junkie trying to pry apart the bars on your bedroom window. Watching people you know die of AIDS. But otherwise—fun.”
Bright, Precious Days is the story of the pioneers, of good WASP stock, who rode out to settle the bleak prairies of lower Manhattan now known as Soho and TriBeCa. There they ‘invented’ loft living as they moved up the ladders of finance or, alternatively, publishing, fifty streets to the north. It’s interesting that those two echt Manhattan industries, full of mutual loathing, are chronicled here. They even intertwine, if that’s your idea of a plot.
This is a novel of the decline of New York, illustrated by the decline of publishing, personified by Russell Calloway. Russell became a bright (a word it’s always hard to get away from in the world of Jay McInerney) young editor in the Eighties and now he is head of his own shakily independent press. He’s that Manhattan guy from a few too many years ago: he drinks too much at lunch, and at dinner, lusts after groupies and has systematically cheated on his wife Corrine for decades.
He has a Sad Story that he uses to justify all this behaviour: he had a Beautiful Talented Friend who slept with Corrine, wrote a Cult Novel about the three of them and Died. More boastful than tragic, this is trotted out for anybody who will listen, except for us. Aside from a coke-fuelled sex scene, we never learn anything at all about Jeff Pierce, bright young author of Love and Beauty – he’s now unreal even to the people who knew him. It seems an odd part of the story to miss out.
Corrine, on the other hand, has more life in her than these bleary men suspect. She really is in love with someone – has been for years – the Mills ’n Boonynamed Luke. He’s super rich, handsome, flies his own aircraft. Most importantly, he offers to buy Corrine any home she wants in New York, just so she can leave Russell. Manhattanites like Russell and Corrine, losing their grip on the hip, with not quite enough moolah to allow them to live there any more, cling to inertia, rent control and loveless conventionality. They must! The whole point of these marriages, and this novel, is property.
But sex, to these shop-worn folk, is still the beat of the city, even if their ways of participating in it are starting to look pretty absurd. The steamishy Mills and Boon approach seems to suit them all, now, maybe because they’ve got property concerns on their minds: “He didn’t know if sleeping with her one more time would sate his desire or fuel it, but he found himself consumed with the need to find out.” (We are not yet consumed with this need.)
The story is set within what might be called the rituals and locales of upper middle class intellectual life in Manhattan: literary dinner parties with punch-ups, girly lunches, book launches with longing looks. Christmas in New York is contrasted with guilty volunteerings at soup kitchens. Russell, à la George Babbitt, escapes for backwoods jaunts, during which we are asked to stand for a lot of Hemingway rot about rods and reels. The sad thing is that he really believes it.