Bright, Precious Days by Jay McInerney: Revisiting the Calloways

Cover image If you’re a fan of Jay McInerney’s series of novels which began with Brightness Falls way back in 1992, you won’t need to be told who the Calloways are nor will you need to have explained to you why I was thrilled at the prospect of a new one despite my disappointment with The Good Life which picked up Russell and Corrine’s story around the time of 9/11. This one begins in 2006 with an America blissfully unaware of the financial calamity which will be visited upon it and the rest of the world two years later. Russell has found himself a backer and has set up a small independent publishing house while Corrine has turned her back on the corporate world and works for a charity, feeding the city’s poor.

The Calloways are close to twenty-five years into their marriage: still living in the loft that satisfies Russell’s lingering bohemian yearnings but now with eleven-year-old twins conceived as a result of Corrine’s sister’s egg donation. The golden couple of Brightness Falls has endured, buffeted a little by financial constraints, work disappointments and the odd dalliance by Russell not to mention Corrine’s (undisclosed) affair. They move in rarefied circles – gallery openings here, launch parties there, charity benefits more than a weekly event. Corrine would much prefer to curl up with a good book but Russell relishes the social whirl and has developed an almost fetishistic relationship with food, its provenance and quality. Corrine, like so many of her circle has the opposite problem, avoiding anything with a hint of calorific value whenever she can. Summers are taken up with visits to the Hamptons where their annual party is happily anticipated by the rich and famous as well as old college friends. Like many couple in their fifties, things are a little stale but they are still the kind of couple whose split would shock even the most hardened socialite. Over the two years that  the novel covers a bright shooting literary star appears on Russell’s horizon; he falls for the kind of proposal the rest of us would have avoided like the plague; Corrine becomes re-acquainted and re-entangled with Luke, her fellow soup kitchen volunteer from The Good Life; parties are attended; revelations are made and rows are had. Meanwhile, America’s first African-American president campaigns for election and the world’s worst economic crisis since the Depression brews.

For me, Bright, Precious Days – although far from being without fault – is a much better book than The Good Life which felt like something of an obligatory response to 9/11. McInerney brings us up to date with the Calloways, reminding those of us who need reminding of their and their friends’ history and sketching in the background for readers new to their lives, all smoothly done. Names are dropped, the rich and famous are pilloried although far too gently for my taste but this is McInerney’s world. Russell and Corrine keep their feet firmly planted in the Art and Love camp, as Russell dubs it, rather than Money and Power with which they lightly rub shoulders. There a nice vein of humour running through the novel: ‘especially unwelcome in this Irish community were the hipsters, scruffy chic invaders from the East Village and Williamsburg attracted by the working-class authenticity their presence was diluting’; ‘Tom had pulled himself up by his grandfather’s suspenders’ offers a sample of the lightly aimed barbs. Not one for readers wanting a glimpse of the gritty, dark underbelly of New York or scathing social satire but certainly engaging and involving enough to suit those wondering how the Calloways are getting along. I’d like to think that there’ll be another instalment but let’s hope it‘s not about Russell and Corrine struggling to cope under President Trump.

8 thoughts on “Bright, Precious Days by Jay McInerney: Revisiting the Calloways”

  1. Interesting review. Honestly, I found it a very difficult book to know whether to endorse or not. I would guess probably ‘yes’ for the descriptions of the city – among the best and most evocative I have read. And probably ‘no’ if you are looking for a good standalone read – although it will certainly appeal to some….

    1. Had I not such an affection for Brightness Falls I don’t think my reaction would have been so positive. My disappointment with The Good Life had also prepared me, too. I’m not sure from your comment whether you’ve read the first two or not.

  2. Did you see him interviewed on Channel 4 news recently? He said he hoped he wouldn’t have to revisit the Calloways living under Trump!

    Interestingly, I’ve not read this trilogy, but I’m keen to do so now… I read Bright Lights Big City last year which I ADORED, which made me keen to explore his back catalogue a little more.

    1. I think that was probably when I was off on my central European jaunt. Let’s hope (with everything crossed) that he doesn’t! Brightness Falls captured the eighties far more vividly for me than the pot-boiling Bonfire of the Vanities. It’s very different from Bright Lights. I hope you’ll get around to it, Kim.

  3. Somehow I had the idea that I wouldn’t enjoy his fiction; I wonder if I’ve gotten his work confused with someone else’s along the way? Regardless, I love the idea of following a group of characters across the years, so I’m intrigued on that score alone. What other writers would you say that you find him similar to? (I know that’s a very broad question, but I’m not looking for an indepth answer, more of an instinctive response.)

    1. Tricky one! As a chronicler of New York society I’m tempted to stick my neck out and say Edith Wharton although the quality of his writing isn’t comparable. I think I’d be shot down in flames if I dared to say that on Twitter! I would say that his early books such as Bright Lights, Big City are very different to the Calloways series.

  4. I liked Bright Lights, Big City when I read it back in the ’80s, but I’m not sure how I’d take to McInerney’s style now! At first I wondered if this might be a sort of sequel to Bright Lights, but it seems more closely related to Brightness Falls. Would that be correct? (Sorry, I haven’t read any of his others so I’m rather out of touch as far as these characters are concerned.)

    1. It’s the third in a series which began with Brightness Falls, Jacqui. They’re all very different from Bright Lights, Big City. I suspect they reflect stages in his own life. All his books seem to be set in the milieu he moves through.

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