McInerney's 26 years of 'one-night stands'

''How It Ended'' is a career retrospective of literary bratpacker Jay McInerney. ''How It Ended'' is a career retrospective of literary bratpacker Jay McInerney. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)
By Alexander Cuadros
April 25, 2009
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Jay McInerney, preeminent chronicler of high life and low in New York City, onetime party fixture in the heyday of the literary bratpack, knows as well as anyone that every good artist deserves a career retrospective. "How It Ended" is his. The collection reunites 26 stories written over 26 years, though you may not notice much of a progression; without the ever-abundant cultural markers and brand names, you would be hard pressed to identify a story as, say, "late McInerney." You do, however, get to know his pet obsessions - sexual infidelity, wealth and fame, cocaine - and for the most part, it doesn't feel repetitive.

True to form, McInerney calls his new book a smattering of "one-night stands," though a few of these exploratory literary dalliances did turn into full-fledged novels. His short but brilliant second-person debut, "Bright Lights, Big City," is one, and another is his elegy to the champagne-and-leverage days before the 1987 stock-market crash, "Brightness Falls." Appropriately, his tales brim with all the attendant guilt and thrills and self-defeating impulses of an extramarital tryst. Philandering, for this author, is a natural state, and he's at his best dissecting the neuroses of city dwellers engaged in this oldest of transgressions. For example, there's the absurd yet strangely tragic "Sleeping With Pigs," in which the narrator is displaced by a pet potbellied pig in a contest for his wife's affection, and ends up seeking solace in other women's arms.

Of course there are misses among the hits, such as "The March," McInerney's over-obvious take on a protest in New York one month before the Iraq war: "The injustice of it infuriated her. The idea that the attack on the city was being used to justify this dubious war was outrage enough." It's just as clunky and earnest as his last novel, "The Good Life," which fanned the smoldering remains of the Twin Towers in an attempt to breathe life into a flavorless, watery love story.

McInerney also slips deep into the long white glove of cliche whenever he ventures to the South, whose inhabitants apparently use words like "nohow" and tend to be Far Simpler Folk. He's much better off in Los Angeles and Manhattan, his natural habitats. Gotham in particular can bring out McInerney's truest pitch, a cool mix of satire and real appreciation, like this sardonic ode describing a young writer's chance entry to a gala at the Met: "This was the metropolis as it was meant to be seen, in the flattering aphrodisiac light of eminence, a brilliant republic compounded of wealth, power, accomplishment, and beauty. The atmosphere of festive mutual regard extended even to tourists, like Collin, on the happy assumption that their applications for citizenship were pending."

In his preface, McInerney writes that, while a novel can make a few false turns, a good story "requires a perfect pitch and a precise sense of form; it has to burn with a hard, gem-like flame." Yet the best stories here are not the tightest, but the weirdest. Few would put up with a novel about cokehead swingers, but somehow the story "Invisible Fences" - with no arc or real conclusion - achieves an oddly touching pathos in just 15 pages. "The Waiter" basically ends with a cheap one-liner, yet it's also an apt, funny meditation on class. Exhibit A, though, is the potbellied pig story, as lopsided as it is brilliant. "I'm kind of amazed myself that I let my ex-wife talk me into sharing the bed with her potbellied pig," the narrator tells us. "Over time almost anything can come to seem normal in the course of a marriage."

Alexander Cuadros is a freelance writer based in Bogotá, Colombia.

HOW IT ENDED: New and Collected Stories By Jay McInerney

Knopf, 331 pp., $25.95