“The best marriages, like the best boats, are the ones that ride out the storms. They take on water; they shudder and list, very nearly capsizing, then right themselves and sail onward toward the horizon. The whole premise, after all, was for better or worse.” Bright, Precious Days, Jay McInerney’s newest novel of Manhattanites’ excesses and desires, places one marriage at the heart of a story in which affairs of the heart are never separated from the tumultuous cultural and generational changes swirling around them.
To their glamorous friends, Russell and Corrine represent an ideal couple, one that has transcended the common perils of midlife. But as they both turn fifty, Russell and Corrine encounter as much turbulence as the post-9/11 era in which they are living: “Their marriage was seaworthy, if not exactly buoyant.,” McInerney writes. “Better off, surely, than the republic, bulging at the waist and spiritually enervated, fighting two wars and a midterm election, all of which seemed endless.” When Corrine encounters an old lover—a wealthy philanthropist she met while volunteering at Ground Zero—his reappearance poses big questions about the direction her marriage is headed.
An editor for a small but distinguished press, Russell tends “to divide humanity into two opposing teams: Art and Love versus Power and Money.” In her job serving low-income neighborhoods through Nourish New York, Corrine feels certain she knows which team they’ve chosen. But in Bright, Precious Days, these teams are constantly, confusingly intertwined. To do their good works, both Russell and Corrine are thrown into privileged cohorts and find themselves struggling to afford the social demands of their respective professional worlds, not to mention the looming inevitability of being forced to move when their rent-controlled loft goes co-op. Team Art and Love can’t seem to afford Manhattan much longer.
Meanwhile Jack Carson, Russell’s newest literary discovery, makes a drug-fueled entrance into Manhattan nightlife from his native Tennessee. Russell is sure of Jack’s talent, and given the financial pressures he’s shouldering, the press needs a success. Meeting Jack, Corrine reflects on Russell’s attachment to writers from flyover country: “[Russell] believed in his heart that America was elsewhere, off in the South or the West, the big sprawling vistas beyond the tired ramparts of the Appalachians; that the country’s literature was about the strong, silent men and women of the hollows and the heartland—although to judge from Jack’s stories, which showcased babbling, toothless speed freaks, they were no longer necessarily silent.” But Russell’s ideals about literary integrity will soon be tested, as will the fate of his career.
Jack’s debut as a literary enfant terrible echoes Russell and Corrine’s experiences with coke-riddled friends from the eighties. Memories of one friend in particular keep surfacing—a gifted writer whose tangled past has been enshrined in a novel published after his untimely death from AIDS. Now, young writers like Jack always seem to be asking what those glamorous, gritty years in New York were really like.
“We didn’t know it was the eighties at the time,” one character points out. “No one told us until about 1987, and by then it was almost over.” Expanding on the idea, he asks, “Does anyone ever have a feeling of living in a particular decade? I mean, do you feel right now, right this minute, like you’re living in the aughts? Is that what we call them? Are we somehow acting out the zeitgeist here and now? Are we exhibiting aughtness?” Those lines go right to the heart of several of the novel’s biggest questions: how do we begin to define the era in which we live now, and what are we supposed to do with our nostalgia for the past? These characters are subject to tremendous waves of change and disruption, as the worlds of high finance, real estate, publishing, and philanthropy sustain huge blows.
McInerney weaves an engaging personal story among the upheavals and collapses of the aughts. As these old ways of life seem to be crumbling, everyone in Russell and Corrine’s circle feels the consequences—layoffs and divorces abound. The health of their own marriage becomes a barometer that gauges the world around them. Ultimately, some of the needling questions around Bright, Precious Days remain unanswered; we don’t learn every detail behind every storyline. But these gaps don’t feel dissatisfying. Instead, they suggest the unavoidable mysteries that persist even within our closest relationships. The novel seems to hint that we’ll go on making new memories to puzzle over, no matter what strange, confounding eras in which we might find ourselves living.
Emily Choate holds an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College. Her fiction has been published in The Florida Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and The Double Dealer, and her nonfiction has appeared in Yemassee, Late Night Library, and elsewhere. She lives in Nashville, where she’s working on a novel.