Tag Archives: Brightness Falls

Five Novels I’ve Read Set in New York

Rather like Berlin, a New York setting is catnip for me. I only need to spot it in a novel’s blurb and it’s on my list which is not always a good thing. I’ve only visited the city once but I think it’s more its almost mythical aura that attracts me rather than the actuality not that I didn’t love it when I was there. You can be sure that there’ll be a Berlin post in this series at some stage but for now, Cover imagehere are five of my favourite novels set in New York City, a couple with links to reviews on this blog.

Jonathan Galassi’s Muse is all about the New York book world, neatly satisfying two obsessions for me. Paul Dukach conceives a lifelong passion for Ida Perkins’ poetry as a teenager. Thanks to the well-connected Morgan, Paul finds his way into publishing world, soon gaining a reputation for his sharp editorial eye. He’s offered a job by Homer Stern, the louche, foul-mouthed owner of one of the city’s two most revered literary publishing houses, its lists stuffed full of Nobel Prize winners, but it’s Homer’s rival, Sterling Wainwright, who has an iron grip on the rights to Perkins’ work. By the end of the book Paul will have fulfilled his wildest dreams but not without a twinge or two of conscience. A poet and one of the head honchos at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Galassi takes us into the world of literary publishing, replete with gossipy detail and sharply observed satire while posing questions about the nature of literary fame. A smart, funny novel written by a man who knows a thing or three about Paul’s world.

I fell in love with Brightness Falls to such an extent that I remember sending H off for a walk into the lovely Corsican maquis on his own so that I could finish it. It’s the first in a trilogy which continued with the disappointing The Good Life and finished with Bright, Precious, Days. All three follow Corinne and Russell Calloway, a glittering New York couple. To their friends, theirs is the perfect marriage but when Russell is caught up in an audacious plan to take over the publishing company in which he’s the rising editorial star, things begin to fall apart. The adrenaline-fuelled atmosphere of the deal takes its toll on both Russell and Corrine, just as the excesses of the ’80s have on many others in New York City, from their friend Jeff, now in detox, to the homeless crack addicts on every street corner. The reckoning finally comes on 19 October 1987 when the bubble bursts with the Wall Street crash. Tom Wolfe’s potboiler The Bonfire of the Vanities was often cited as the quintessential yuppie novel but for me Brightness Falls summed up the folly of the ’80s very much better and with a great deal more humanity.Cover image

Beginning in early 2001 Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children inhabits similar literary territory to Brightness Falls presenting a portrait of New York through the eyes of three thirty-year-old friends living in Manhattan. All of them once thought they had a bright future but none seems to have fulfilled that promise. Marina has spent the advance she was awarded and has returned home to live with her parents. Julius is subsidised by his boyfriend having failed to support himself with his reviews. Danielle is unemployed and involved with two men, one of whom is Marina’s literary critic father. The attacks of 9/11 throw all the cards up into the air for these three as it did for so many. Published several years after the atrocity, Messud’s novel captures the city both before and after this cataclysmic event in an immersive, satisfying novel.

Anna Quindlen’s Alternate Side takes us from literary New York to residential Manhattan where Charlie is cock-a-hoop having secured a space in the parking lot of the cul-de-sac where he and Nora have lived for a couple of decades. Theirs is a tightly knit community, tolerant of George, its self-appointed overseer, given to pushing instructions through their letter boxes about what other residents should and should not do. This privileged set of householders looks to the likes of Ricky, the handyman, to keep things ticking over smoothly. One day a shocking act of violence rocks the street, setting off fault lines in relationships that will undermine some irretrievably. With its perceptive exploration of middle-aged marriage, Alternate Side inhabits quintessential Quindlen territory. Overly ambitious comparisons abound in publishers’ blurbs, but Quindlen’s writing really does rank alongside Elizabeth Strout’s and AnnTyler’s for me. If you haven’t yet read her work, I hope you’ll give her try.

Cover imageKathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk takes us on a tour of Manhattan on New Year’s Eve in 1984 in the company of an 85-year-old who arrived in New York in the ’30s, beginning her career as a lowly copywriter for Macy’s and ending it as the world’s highest paid woman in advertising. Lillian’s evening has not gone as planned. Instead she decides to go for a stroll, telling us her life story as she walks and through it the story of half a century of New York’s history, encompassing the Jazz Age, the Great Depression and AIDS. I loved this novel which is, apparently, based on the story of Margaret Fishback. Lillian is a wonderfully witty and engaging character. Rooney’s book has a charmingly old-fashioned feel about it which seems a satisfying note to end on for me.

What about you – any favourite New York City novels you’d like to recommend?

Blasts from the Past: Brightness Falls by Jay McInerney (1992)

Cover imageA very happy 2019 to you! I’m starting my posting year with the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

I fell in love with this book to such an extent that I remember sending H off for a walk into the lovely Corsican maquis on his own so that I could finish it. Tom Wolfe’s potboiler The Bonfire of the Vanities is seen as the quintessential yuppie novel but for me Brightness Falls summed up the folly of the ’80s very much better and with a great deal more humanity. It was the first in a trilogy which continued with The Good Life, a grave disappointment after Brightness Falls, and finished with Bright, Precious, Days which fell somewhere in the middle of the two in literary terms. All three follow Corinne and Russell Calloway.

Corrine and Russell are a glittering New York couple, in love with each other and pursuing successful careers in a world where anything seems possible if you are young, bright and fearless. To their friends, they epitomize the perfect marriage but when Russell becomes caught up in an audacious plan to take over the publishing company in which he is the rising editorial star, things begin to fall apart. The adrenaline-fuelled atmosphere of the deal take its toll on both Russell and Corrine, just as the excesses of the ’80s have taken their toll on many others in New York City, from their close friend Jeff, now in detox, to the homeless crack addicts on every street corner. With the knowledge gained from her job as a stockbroker, Corrine begins to realize that the heady days of the rising Dow must surely come to an end. The reckoning finally comes on 19 October 1987 when the bubble bursts with the Wall Street crash.

I reviewed Bright, Precious, Days in the midst of the 2016 election campaign which seems a world away now. McInerney has said that he has no intention of extending his trilogy into a quartet but I can’t help wondering how Corinne and Russell would be faring under the current regime.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Bright, Precious Days by Jay McInerney: Revisiting the Calloways

Cover imageIf 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.