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Savannah Book Festival: Jay McInerney’s Bright Star

Manhattan’s resident novelist shows no signs of burn out

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WHEN LITERARY wunderkind Jay McInerney shot to the top of the bestseller list in 1985 with his second-person, drug-showered debut novel Bright Lights, Big City, there seemed a decent chance that he'd live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse.

Instead, the wild man who once snorted coke with Hunter S. Thompson in the bathroom of the New York Public Library has managed to keep himself between the lines, producing nine more critically-acclaimed novels and short story collections over the last three decades as well as several books on wine. He’ll discuss his latest, Bright, Precious Days, at the Savannah Book Festival on Saturday, February 17.

The final installment in a trilogy that began with Brightness Falls and The Good Life, Bright, Precious Days catches readers up with the Calloways, the couple whose promising New York story now straddles between tentative success and nostalgia for the good old days. (One character reflects woefully that “we didn’t know it was the eighties at the time. No one told us until about 1987, and by then it was almost over.”)

Leading the charge of 80s pop-lit along with bookish Brat Pack peers Bret Easton Ellis and Tama Janowitz (who will also be at the festival reading from her new book, Scream,) McInerney was once as famous for his party game as his storytelling skills. But like his characters, the craziest of those days (and nights) are behind him.

Now in his 60s, New York’s resident commentator of the “cultured class” seems to have settled into the role of bemused elder statesman, though he can still be lured out for an occasional night on the town. He splits his time between his beloved Manhattan and the Hamptons with his fourth wife, publishing heiress Anne Hearst.

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After a couple of muffled iPhone attempts, McInerney readily gave over his home number in order to chat more clearly about President Trump-era New York, his wine writing side hustle and the wonder of middle age.

I’m impressed that you still have a landline! It might be the only thing that saves us in the coming apocalypse.

McInerney: Yeah, well, sometimes cell phone technology isn't that great! I'm definitely going to keep it.

Let's start with the new book. Bright, Precious Days is the last about Corrine and Russell Calloway, a Manhattan couple struggling with status, money and well, just being married. How have they changed over the arc of their story?

They've changed an awful lot. When we meet them in the first book, they're young and everything about their lives is full of promise, anything seems possible, that's the dream for New York. They're almost pioneers among their set—most of their friends are still single, and they're kind of the golden couple of their group—they're good looking, they're smart, they have promising careers.

As time goes on, of course, the choices that we make kind of circumscribe our lives, and life narrows down from a set of infinite possibilities to a finished equation. In many ways the Calloways are a fairly successful couple: they stick to their dreams, Russell keeps his ideals as a man of letters.

Corrine goes through various careers, they have two kids.But inevitably there are a lot of disappointments and a lot of dreams left by the wayside. They’re a little bit chastened by some of their experiences. On the other hand, their marriage has survived and they’ve maintained a foothold in Manhattan, if a somewhat precarious one.

They’d be considered wildly successful by most, yet they still don’t quite stand shoulder to shoulder with their peers.

Yes. When you’re young, it’s really easy to have your ideals and think money doesn’t matter. When you’re approaching 50 years old and you live in the most expensive city in the country, you can’t help realizing that money matters perhaps a little more than you thought. If you want to stay in Manhattan and have a second bathroom and a decent education for your kids, you find that it does. In the book, Corrine says that money can’t buy happiness, but also that she hadn’t considered the many forms of unhappiness that it can stave off.

Each book is set against the panorama of Manhattan but also a historical event—in this case, the imminent financial meltdown of the last decade. I know this is a trilogy, but is there a possibility we’ll follow the Calloways through post-Trump New York?

[laughs] I'm increasingly thinking so! When I finished this book, I did think it was the end. One thing I don't want to do is follow them into the nursing home! I started out with this idea of this young, glamorous couple, and when I wrote Brightness Falls I never thought I'd be writing about as they turned 50 and I'm pretty sure I don't want to write about them turning 80!

But it seems to me that my own interest in these characters and the reception this time is such that it’s clear that a lot of people would like to read about them again. I really feel like with what’s happening in New York and the country right now there’s an opportunity for another one. I guess that would make it a tetralogy instead of trilogy.

How’s New York been the last few months?

Well, ever since the election there’s been a real sense of anger and depression. If I’m not mistaken, 83 percent of Manhattanites voted for Hillary Clinton, which leaves 17 percent for our supposed-native son. And the people I write about—which is to say the cultural classes in New York—are 100 percent in the camp who were horrified by the election. There has been a sense of shellshock here not unlike—I hate to say it—what it felt like in the days after September 11.

I have a lot of Republican friends, the majority of whom come from the financial industry or are my wife’s old friends, and we used to kid each other about the elections. Now it’s gotten contentious in a way that I’ve never seen before. It’s a very fraught time.

You bent towards the social justice movement and activism in your younger years. How do you focus those energies into the world these days?

I certainly took a role in the elections this year, in the local level as well as the national level. I organized and wrote checks and will continue to do so. I think at some point, the opposition is going to get its act together and figure out constructive ways to move forward.

Does that mean you didn’t march in a pink pussyhat?

[laughs] I was actually on the West Coast in meetings that day. But I'm proud to say that my daughter did!

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You, Bret Easton Ellis and Tama Janowitz—who's also going to be at the Savannah Book Festival—defined contemporary literature in the 80s. Do you still keep in touch with the Brat Pack?

I haven't been in touch with Tama in years, though I used to see her here and there. I reviewed her second book for the New York Times and I admire her writing.

But we weren’t really actually any kind of movement—this whole “Brat Pack” idea was kind of manufactured by the press.

On the other hand, I’ve always been close with Bret, in fact I just had lunch with him last week in Los Angeles. We stay in touch. Tama just was not particularly in our circle despite the notion of the brat group.

Does that mean we won’t see y’all tossing back shots at the Original this weekend?

Well you never know! Though I am coming with my wife so I’ll be more subdued than I would be on my own.

What does she think of your younger reputation?

We actually met at a nightclub in 1986 at about 2 in the morning. Somebody brought her over to our table at MK and there was definitely a spark between us, but I was with somebody else. We remained friends, and when I broke up with Marla Hanson in the 90s, she was one of the first people I called. She said, “Oh damn, I just got engaged.” So we went back and forth for quite a while. But she’d seen me in my late night environment and I think she’s fine with it.

Your fans probably assume you’d be an expert in other hedonistic substances, but you’re a renowned voice in the oenophile world. How did you come to dedicate so much writing to wine?

Wine is a great subject. Unlike stamp collecting or orchid breeding, it does have this sensual hedonistic kick to it, and it was a way of intellectualizing my hedonism [laughs]. You can approach from so many points of view. It's aesthetic, it's historical, it's geological, meteorological ... There's only so much you can learn from vodka and cocaine before they take you too far—or too deep.

What are you writing now, and what are you reading?

I'm working on a new novel, which I don't want to talk about because it's too soon. Reading, let's see ... I just picked up Ian McEwan's new book, haven't started it yet. I recently read The Nix by Nathan Hill, which I liked a lot. And Manhattan's Babe is a wonderful book by my friend Frederic Beigbeder about J.D. Salinger's romance with Oona O'Neill, who eventually married Charlie Chaplin.

So, middle age, though. Did you think you'd make it this far?

All my literary heroes died before they were 39 or 40 or something. When you're in your 20s, it's hard to imagine life much beyond that. I'm so glad I didn't die young like Dylan Thomas or F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I certainly lived a somewhat dangerous life for a while. Sometimes I’m surprised to find myself here but I’m very glad I am!

It’s very satisfying to have had all of that experience and now have the perspective, and—I like to think—a little wisdom.

cs

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