Tag Archives: Jay McInerney

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?

Paperbacks to Look Out for in September 2017: Part Two

Cover imageThis second instalment of September paperbacks starts with a book that I wanted to love but couldn’t quite manage to. If you’re a fan of Jay McInerney’s series of novels which began with Brightness Falls 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 their story around the time of 9/11. Bright Precious Days begins in 2006 with the global financial crisis not yet on the horizon. Russell runs a small independent publishing house while Corrine works for a charity, feeding the city’s poor. It’s a much better book than The Good Life but It doesn’t match the brilliance of Brightness Falls for me.

Art thrillers seem to be a bit of a thing at the moment. I read the wonderful The Last Painting of Sara de Vos earlier this year and if anyone’s looking out for a late summer read I’d recommend it. Coincidentally Bernhard Schlink’s The Woman on the Stairs also has an Australian connection. A ‘lost’ painting is donated to a Sydney gallery much to the amazement of the art world and the three men who’ve loved the women it portrays. Each of them comes to her isolated cottage to face their tangled past. ‘The Woman on the Stairs is an intricately crafted, poignant and beguiling novel about creativity and love, about the effects of time passing and the regrets that haunt us all’ say the publishers. It sounds appealing and I’ve enjoyed Schlink’s work in the past very much.

There’s a fair amount of regret in Donna Morrissey’s The Fortunate Brother which comes with a hearty endorsement from the excellent Ron Rash. Set in Newfoundland, it’s the story of a murder which sets the small fishing village in which it takes place abuzz with speculation. When the local bully’s corpse is washed up, thought to be drowned then found to be stabbed, almost everybody falls under suspicion including the brother of a family still suffering a terrible burden of grief. Tensions run high almost to the end of Morrissey’s taut atmospheric novel. I guessed Cover imagethe perpetrator correctly early on but that didn’t stop me from changing my mind right up until their identity was revealed.

Fiona Melrose’s much praised Midwinter explores similar emotional territory by the sound of it. It’s about a Suffolk farming family who have worked their land for generations. Cecelia died when her youngest was just a child leaving two sons and their father who have stoically buried their grief and got on with their work but something about the dreadful winter which comes upon them makes them snap. ‘Tender and lyrical, alive to language and nature, Midwinter is a novel about guilt, blame, lost opportunities and, ultimately, it is a story about love and the lengths we will go to find our way home’, apparently. Having recently reviewed the very fine Johannesburg which made it on to my Man Booker wishlist, I can’t imagine why I haven’t read this one already.

Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others sounds like an entirely different kettle of fish. Film-makers Meadow and Carrie grew up together in Los Angeles. When Meadow becomes involved with a woman whose seductive powers of listening are the subject of one of her documentaries, she sets in train her own downfall. ‘Heart-breaking and insightful, Innocents and Others is an astonishing novel about friendship, identity, loneliness and art’ say the publishers. It sounds intriguing.

Cover imageI’m ending September’s paperbacks with what’s been called a Brexit novel which I’m even more eager to read after reviewing Anthony Cartwright’s The Cut, Peirene Now!’s response to the referendum whose result shocked and dismayed many of us to the core. It’s Ali Smith’s Autumn, set in 2016 when Daniel is a century old and Elisabeth is thirty-two. ‘Smith’s new novel is a meditation on a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, on what harvest means. This first in a seasonal quartet casts an eye over our own time. Who are we? What are we made of?’ say the publishers. It sounds unmissable.

That’s it for September’s paperbacks. A click on a title will either take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis should you be interested. If you’d like to catch up with the first instalment it’s here, and September’s new titles are here.

Books to Look Out for in September 2016

Cover imageI like to kick off these previews with a novel that I can hardly wait to get my hands on. Sometimes there’s more than one, sometimes nothing that entirely fits the bill, but this month there’s no contest – the prospect of Jay McInerney’s Bright, Precious Days has me almost slavering in anticipation. Brightness Falls was one of my favourite novels of the ‘90s, summing up the heady days of 1980s New York through the lives of Corrine and Russell, a glittering couple in love with each other and pursuing successful careers in a world where anything seemed possible if you were young, bright and fearless until the Wall Street crash of 1987 when the bubble finally burst. Of course, we’ve since been buffeted by a much more damaging financial crisis but Russell and Corrine have that yet to come. Obama and Clinton are still rivals, Lehman Brothers have not yet crashed as the couple go about their lives, Russell running his own publishing company, still hankering after the bohemian life, while Corrine manages a food redistribution programme, longing for more than just a loft to live in for their twelve-year-old twins. ‘A moving, deeply humane novel’ say the publishers which exactly summed up Brightness Falls for me although I have to confess to being somewhat disappointed in its sequel, The Good Life.

Still in New York for Tom Connolly’s Men Like Air which is described by the publishers as ‘a glorious love letter’ to the city, sealing the deal for me. It’s about four men and their relationships with each other: nineteen-year-old Finn, fresh from the UK; Jack, the brother Finn’s determined to track down; Leo, lonely and envious of his best friend’s life and William, not only Leo’s oldest friend but also his happily married brother-in-law. The lives of these four interconnect in unexpected ways, apparently. The ‘love letter to New York’ may have been the hook for me but male friendship is an unusual theme which gives Connolly’s novel an added draw.

We’re off to city far less celebrated than New York in American fiction for Christopher Hebert’s Angels of Detroit. Hebert’s novel explores what was once a beacon of America’s industrial success, now bankrupt and on the point of dereliction, through the lives of a wide Cover imagerange of characters, from activists intent on saving it to an old woman trying to establish a community garden, from a carpenter with an idea for regeneration to an executive who remembers Detroit in its bustling prime. ‘Driven by struggle and suspense, and shot through with a startling empathy, Christopher Hebert’s magnificent second novel unspools an American story for our time’ say the publishers which sounds just the ticket to me.

I have something of an on again, off again relationship with Ann Patchett’s fiction – I loved The Magician’s Assistant but couldn’t quite see what all the fuss was about with the Orange Prize-winning Bel Canto . Commonwealth sounds tempting, though. Deputy District Attorney Bert Cousins falls for the mother of the baby whose christening party he’s crashed in 1964. Twenty-four years later Franny meets her literary idol and tells him her family’s story unaware of the far-reaching consequences she’s setting in train. It’s described by the publisher as ‘a powerful and tender tale of family, betrayal and the far-reaching bonds of love and responsibility… …a meditation on inspiration, interpretation and the ownership of stories’. I’m particularly interested by the ‘ownership of stories’ idea.

Georgia Bain’s Ester in Between a Wolf and a Dog continually listens to the stories of others. Ester is a family therapist, helping clients to navigate their way through misery to happiness on a daily basis. However her own life is far from a delight. Lonely and estranged from both her ex-husband and her sister, each of whom have their own problems, she’s about to face the consequences of a choice made by her mother that will affect them all. Sounds right up my street.

Cover imageAs well as starting with a much-anticipated novel I like to end with one, too, and Carol Birch’s Orphans of the Carnival fits that slot beautifully. Picking up the performance theme of the marvellous Jamrach’s Menagerie with its Victorian East End setting, Birch’s latest novel has one foot in nineteenth-century Europe with Julia Patriana, known as much for her physical oddity as her singing and dancing talent, and one in present-day London with Rose who collects lost treasures. These two share ‘a wonderful and terrible link’ according to the publishers in what they describe as a ‘haunting tale of identity, love and independence’. If Orphans of the Carnival is only half as good as Jamrach’s Menagerie it will be well worth your time.

That’s it for September. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis, should you be interested.