17 Feb 2013

"Brightness Falls" by Jay McInerney

Jay McInerney does vacuous, shallow, wealth-drugs-or-fame obsessed characters really well, better than most other writers and so good that it rivals Tom Wolfe's Sherman McCoy from "The Bonfires of Vanities".

"Brightness Falls" is the ultimate recession-read, a story of having it all and still wanting more, much more. It's a story of a world where the super-rich make the wealthy look poverty stricken, it really messes with your sense of perspective - a bit like a fashion spread in Vanity Fair actually.

It's the late 1980's and Russel and Corrine Calloway have a great life. She's working in bank, making pretty impressive money while still maintaining to be a very decent human being and work in a soup kitchen - a sort of America's sweetheart in designer suits and cocktail dresses. He's in publishing and although he is good at his job, he is restless and impatient to do more and get more. They met in college and have been a golden couple ever since, the people that everyone else looked up to and wanted to be, the ones who had fabulous dinner parties and were beautiful and successful.
Then Russell gets the opportunity to make take part in a deal. A big deal, one that could shake the New York publishing scene. But everything comes at a price and to pursue his dream of big business and a place in publishing history, Russell must ally himself with ruthless investor Bernie Melman for whom everything is for sale - a corporate devil who is evil incarnate and clad in a great suit.

With the ambitions of 1980's yuppies come also the classic sufferances - depression, drug dependency, eating disorders, infidelity and a life spiraling out of control. It's a story with a morale about how everything comes at a price, about the greed danger of greed and "you don't know what you've got til it's gone".

"Brightness Falls" lacks the humour and satirical elegance of some of McInerney's other books such as "Model Behaviour" or "Story of My Life" but it has Corrine who with her likeability and frailty is a guide leading the reader through the story while promising that the world is not as awful as men like Melman and her husband make it. She is the reason that I would read this book again - because I connected with her in some way - and I admire McInerney for his ability to create such an engaging character.
Read it as a warm-up if you like 1980s stories of excess and hubris and then follow it up with "The Bonfire of Vanities" by Tom Wolfe, the iconic read on this topic.

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