Fear and loathing in NY

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - By Jay McIn­er­ney Blooms­bury, £18.99 Re­view by Todd McEwen

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.

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