When Jay McInerney saw the cover that book-jacket guru Chip Kidd designed for his eighth and latest novel, Bright, Precious Days, his first thought, he says, was “I’m going to get so much shit for this.” The wraparound image prominently features the retro orange-neon sign of Tribeca’s venerable Odeon bistro, which also appeared on the cover of the paperback edition of McInerney’s debut novel, Bright Lights, Big City. That 1984 tale, about the coke-fueled adventures of an aspiring writer coming of age in the then-remote wilderness of Lower Manhattan, also depicted the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and for Bright, Precious Days, which takes place in 2008, the two blazing columns of the 9/11 Tribute in Light serve as poignant stand-ins.
“I was a little concerned at first, because this book is by no means any kind of sequel to Bright Lights,” McInerney says, as he fidgets in the elegant, art-filled living room of the Greenwich Village penthouse that he and his wife, publishing heiress Anne Randolph Hearst, call home in the city. “But Chip said, ‘This is the universe you created. You might as well own it.’”
In Bright Lights, the Odeon functioned as the decadent center of that universe, and in real life served as the clubhouse of an up-and-coming creative crowd that included artists Robert Longo, David Salle, and Keith Haring; the original cast members of Saturday Night Live; and the literary Brat Pack—of which McInerney was both the poster child and the whipping boy.
In his new novel, the restaurant gets a single mention in a telling passage about how the once lawless, graffiti-tagged no-man’s- land of Tribeca had become a playground for the very rich. “Now you saw movie stars in the Garden Deli, investment bankers at the Odeon.”/p>
The gentrification of the city is a running theme in Bright, Precious Days, his third novel to depict the complicated world
of Russell and Corrine Calloway and their morally fluid friends and family. McInerney is a bona fide member of Gotham’s one percent—at least judging from the works by Longo, Salle, Cindy Sherman, and Eric Fischl that adorn the walls of his apartment. But even though the tectonic shifts that Manhattan has undergone over the last 30 years have contributed to his success, McInerney says he’s “very disturbed” that the increasing encroachment of the .01 percent is wreaking havoc on Gotham’s diverse urban ecosystem of cultural and ethnic enclaves.
“For those of us who knew the old New York, it’s a little bit sad,” says the 61-year-old author.
McInerney introduced the Calloways in his 1992 novel Brightness Falls, which he set circa the stock market crash of 1987, and revisited them in The Good Life (2006), which unfolds in the aftermath of 9/11. Bright, Precious Days picks up in 2008 as Wall Street lurches toward another meltdown. Woven through a plotline about the Calloways’ foundering marriage is the question of “whether people like Russell and Corrine still have a place in New York,” McInerney says. “They are privileged, well-educated—they go to movie premieres, they summer in the Hamptons. They’re just not super rich, and they’re trying to hang on.”
The Calloways and their costars wrestle with their fictional destinies in settings that, even though some of the names have been changed, will be familiar to habitués of New York. The Spotted Pig shows up as a restaurant called the Fatted Calf, and Michael’s, that lunchtime “watering hole of the media tribe,” is Jacqueline’s.
One difference between McInerney’s fictional New York and the actual one: “Donald Trump doesn’t exist in it,” he says. “It’s interesting that people outside of New York think of him as being the epitome of a New Yorker, and in some ways he is. But in other ways, he represents the worst of us.”
Without spoiling Bright, Precious Days, it’s safe to say neither Russell nor Corrine joins the creative diaspora to Brooklyn. “I thought it would be a terrible cliché,” McInerney says. Besides, Manhattan is his turf. “Brooklyn is so covered now,” he says, referring to the slew of writers who have made it their literary terrain. “I wouldn’t go near it with a ten-foot pole.”