Even decades after their arrival, Corrine and Russell Calloway still feel as if they’re living the dream that drew them to New York City in the first place: book parties or art openings one night and high-society events the next; jobs they care about (and in fact love); twin children whose birth was truly miraculous; a loft in TriBeCa and summers in the Hamptons. But all of this comes at a fiendish cost. Russell, an independent publisher, has superb cultural credentials yet minimal cash flow; as he navigates a business that requires, beyond astute literary judgment, constant financial improvisation, he encounters an audacious, potentially game-changing—or ruinous—opportunity. Meanwhile, instead of chasing personal gain in this incredibly wealthy city, Corrine devotes herself to helping feed its hungry poor, and she and her husband soon discover they’re being priced out of the newly fashionable neighborhood they’ve called home for most of their adult lives, with their son and daughter caught in the balance.
Then Corrine’s world is turned upside down when the man with whom she’d had an ill-fated affair in the wake of 9/11 suddenly reappears. As the novel unfolds across a period of stupendous change—including Obama’s historic election and the global economic collapse he inherited—the Calloways will find themselves and their marriage tested more severely than they ever could have imagined.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Once, not so very long ago, young men and women had come to the city because they loved books, because they wanted to write novels or short stories or even poems, or because they wanted to be associated with the production and distribution of those artifacts and with the people who created them. For those who haunted suburban libraries and provincial bookstores, Manhattan was the shining island of letters. New York, New York: It was right there on the title pages—the place from which the books and magazines emanated, home of all the publishers, the address of The New Yorker and The Paris Review, where Hemingway had punched O’Hara and Ginsberg seduced Kerouac, Hellman sued McCarthy and Mailer had punched everybody, where—or so they imagined—earnest editorial assistants and aspiring novelists smoked cigarettes in cafés while reciting Dylan Thomas, who’d taken his last breath in St. Vincent’s Hospital after drinking seventeen whiskeys at the White Horse Tavern, which was still serving drinks to the tourists and the young litterateurs who flocked here to raise a glass to the memory of the Welsh bard. These dreamers were people of the book; they loved the sacred New York texts: The House of Mirth, Gatsby, Breakfast at Tiffany’s et al., but also all the marginalia: the romance and the attendant mythology—the affairs and addictions, the feuds and fistfights. Like everyone else in their lousy high school, they’d read The Catcher in the Rye, but unlike everyone else they’d really felt it—it spoke to them in their own language—and they secretly conceived the ambition to one day move to New York and write a novel called Where the Ducks Go in Winter or maybe just The Ducks in Winter.
Russell Calloway had been one of them, a suburban Michigander who had an epiphany after his ninth-grade teacher assigned Thomas’s “Fern Hill” in honors English, who subsequently vowed to devote his life to poetry until A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man changed his religion to fiction. Russell went east to Brown, determined to acquire the skills to write the great American novel, but after reading Ulysses—which seemed to render most of what came afterward anticlimactic—and comparing his own fledgling stories with those written by his Brown classmate Jeff Pierce, he decided he was a more plausible Maxwell Perkins than a Fitzgerald or Hemingway. After a postgraduate year at Oxford he moved to the city and eventually landed a coveted position opening mail and answering the phone for legendary editor Harold Stone, in his leisure hours prowling the used bookstores along Fourth Avenue in the Village, haunting the bars at the Lion’s Head and Elaine’s, catching glimpses of graying literary lions at the front tables. And if the realities of urban life and the publishing business had sometimes bruised his romantic sensibilities, he never relinquished his vision of Manhattan as the mecca of American literature, or of himself as an acolyte, even a priest, of the written word. One delirious night a few months after he arrived in the city, he accompanied an invited guest to a Paris Review party in George Plimpton’s town house, where he shot pool with Mailer and fended off the lisping advances of Truman Capote after snorting coke with him in the bathroom.
Though the city after three decades seemed in many ways diminished from the capital of his youth, Russell Calloway had never quite fallen out of love with it, nor with his sense of his own place here. The backdrop of Manhattan, it seemed to him, gave every gesture an added grandeur, a metropolitan gravitas.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s conversation about Bright, Precious Days, Jay McInerney’s vibrant and immersive novel about post 9/11 New York, and a circle of friends and acquaintances whose lives intersect at the crossroads of great social and political change.
1. Describe the early courtship of Russell and Corrine Calloway. How would you characterize their relationship? How do their personalities shift or change over the course of the novel? What aspect of their marriage is strongest?
2. Marital fidelity, or lack thereof, is central to the plotting in Bright, Precious Days. As the number of affairs mounted throughout the book, how did they shape or complicate your understanding of each character? Which liaison surprised you the most? Consider the letter that Jeff wrote to Corrine, in which courtly love is explored. What does McInerney seem to suggest about the functionality of monogamy?
3. Jeff is introduced to the reader, strikingly, in the present tense. How is his presence felt throughout the book? How would you describe him, based on Russell’s account? Corrine’s? What did his personal letters reveal?
4. Describe the editorial relationship that Russell has with his authors. What is his main objective as an editor? Discuss the idea of ownership in relation to literature that has been touched by an editor’s pen. What does Jack’s letter to Russell imply about Russell’s editorial style?
5. Discuss how New York City functions as a character in Bright, Precious Days. What assertions can be made about New York pre- and post-9/11? What is “authentic” New York? How do Russell’s ideas about what it means to be a New Yorker frustrate Corrine?
6. The scene in which Hilary reveals that she is the biological mother of Russell and Corrine’s children sends shock waves that emanate throughout the novel. What scares Corrine most about her children knowing this information? How would you describe her as a parent?
7. Discuss the role of food and consumption in Bright, Precious Days. How is Russell’s interest in food and culinary culture described over the course of the novel? Why does their daughter’s interest in cooking alarm Corrine? How does class factor into body image concerns in their social circle?
8. Compare the dinner party in chapter 31 with the dinner party where Jack first becomes acquainted with the Calloways. How has his perspective about the Calloway family changed during this time? How has his understanding of New York and its literary scene shifted?
9. Discuss Corrine and Russell’s TriBeCa living situation. Why is Russell so adamant about buying property? What appeals to Corrine about Harlem? How does their struggle to find an affordable neighborhood reflect the tides of gentrification inherent in the rise of urban populaces?
10. Issues of class consciousness run throughout Bright, Precious Days. How do anxieties about money and status plague Corrine and Russell’s relationship? With whom is Corrine most comfortable discussing money? How does the crash of 2008 affect the couple’s social circle?
11. Describe Corrine’s relationship with Luke. What attracted her to Luke initially? How does his personality differ from her husband’s? Were you surprised by her decision to remain with Russell?
12. How does the discovery of Corrine’s affair affect their children? When is Corrine’s guilt about it most apparent? How does her apology following the affair differ from Russell’s behavior after his dalliances?
13. Compare the lives of Jeff and Jack. What parallels can you draw about their ascensions to literary stardom? Their tragic deaths? How did Russell’s editorial input shape their success?
14. As Bright, Precious Days unfolds, instances of deception are untangled and revealed. Who is the most honest character? Which character’s secret was most surprising to you?
15. How do Russell’s ideas about Art and Love versus Power and Money echo throughout Bright, Precious Days? What do they assert about the relationship between art and commerce? How do they reflect the changing nature of New York City? Of Russell’s own ambitions?
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Jay McInerney
In deep middle age, the Russell and Corrine Calloways have passed their peak. Or at least Russell seems to feel he has. The man once described as the Scott to Corrine's Zelda, the Nick to her Nora, now stares at infomercials on TV in the middle of the night. He snores. He is subject to 3:45 a.m. panics of despair. Could it really be that his author, Jay McInerney, has reached his sixties?
With its wistful title, Bright, Precious Days is a continuation of Russell and Corrine Calloway's life story, which began with 1992's Brightness Falls and continued with 2006's The Good Life. Like all of McInerney's novels, it's set in Manhattan, which seemed a good place to begin our interview. Daniel Asa Rose
The Barnes & Noble Review: "Though the city after three decades seemed in many ways diminished from the capital of his youth, Russell Calloway had never quite fallen out of love with it, nor with his sense of his own place here. The backdrop of Manhattan, it seemed to him, gave every gesture an added grandeur, a metropolitan gravitas." I must say, odes to New York don't get much nicer than that. Women may come and go in your books, but the city is always there. Is it the most enduring love of your life?
Jay McInerney: The city is certainly the most enduring love of my life, and it's been the backdrop for most of my other romances. I still get excited when I approach from the east or west and catch sight of the skyline.
BNR: The word bright consistently figures into your titles. (Bright Lights, Big City; Brightness Falls; Bright, Precious Days.) Do you mean to signal a moth-to-flame sensibility in your work?
JM: I think indeed it's a question of moth to flame. It's a reference of course to the city lights and the fact that my characters are drawn to them.
BNR: One thing you do particularly well is deliver pitch- perfect aperçus. "Kip believed his wealth entitled him to the truth, as if it were a commodity like any other." Residents of the Hamptons "used this obscure term [jitney] for a public conveyance because the kind of people who could afford to live in both places either didn't ride buses or, if forced to, would never identify them as such." Do these come as easily as they used to? Easier?
JM: I think sometimes they come very easily and other times I have to work a bit on them. There is a certain fluency when one is in one's twenties that perhaps fades a little with time. However, there's a wisdom, we hope, that comes later in life. On balance it evens out.
BNR: From the get-go, you've brilliantly documented the glamorous-but-often-superficial life of fashionable New Yorkers. Do you think you're chiefly a satirist or a celebrant of that world that you're extolling it, skewering it, or both?
JM: I think both. I think my sensibility oscillates between satire and romance but that the latter is ultimately the dominant note. Pure satire is ultimately, it seems to me, somewhat sterile. I can't write too much about people I don't care about.
BNR: I confess I sometimes grow impatient with your fascination for "bold-name faces" (I assume you meant "boldface names"): characters dine at the sort of places "where, if you read Vanity Fair and watched Charlie Rose, you'd recognize some of the faces in the room, and if you were yourself one of those bold-name faces, you'd know everyone at the surrounding tables." Why are your characters still so concerned with having the maître d' know their names or the waiter, their favorite drinks? I understand it's a way of keeping score, but why are such niceties still so gratifying to your protagonists?
JM: No, actually, I meant bold-name faces. I was trying to enliven the hackneyed phrase: the chapter is written from Corrine's point of view, and what she sees in the restaurant is faces, not names. I'm not particularly fascinated with boldface names, but most people on the planet seem to be, hence Access Hollywood, Page Six, TMZ, et al. In the case you cite I'm writing about a particularly celebrity-saturated, self-conscious restaurant frequented by New York media people. It's a hothouse atmosphere I didn't invent it, but I'm describing that world and its obsessions.
BNR: Your protagonist quotes some lovely medieval poetry about romantic love. Do you yourself write poetry? Are you a secret romantic?
JM: I wrote poetry for many years; not so much in recent years. I'm not a secret romantic. I'm a romantic.
BNR: You write about a growing exhaustion with the "ridiculous circus" of New York social life: "the babble, the postures and gestures, the ambition and striving and yearning coiled therein . . . For a moment, he recognized how artificial it all was, but he, too, was part of it." Yet I can't quite see you moving to backwoods Maine. What's the solution?
JM: Well, this opinion is Russell's, not necessarily mine. I think as you get older the social whirl becomes less interesting. But as a novelist I remain interested in social life and all of its manifestations in Manhattan. Definitely not moving to the woods, though I do spend time in eastern Long Island writing, especially in the winter, when there are few New Yorkers around.
BNR: Toward the end of Bright, Precious Days, your protagonist wakes in a panic in the middle of the night. "It was increasingly difficult to avoid the conclusion that he was . . . a failure . . . [not] 'beloved on the earth.' " Yet you wrote one of the signature books of the 1980s, which is still taught in high schools across the country. Doesn't your continued success somewhat protect you from despair?
JM: I wish I could say success protected me from despair, but it doesn't. Success doesn't prevent you from waking up in the middle of the night in a panic, or worrying about mortality or the well-being of your children.
BNR: You were one of the first of your generation to be swept up into the literary pantheon: hanging with Norman Mailer, etc. Was it in any way a burden to have started with such a triumph? If you had not been tapped, would you have written different kinds of books? Would you recommend the experience to other young writers?
JM: I wouldn't particularly recommend my kind of literary success to anyone; it was very disorienting in some ways, and perhaps I didn't handle it as well as I might have. It was more of a surprise to me than to anyone, and there weren't really any road maps to guide me, though in fact, talking to people like Norman Mailer, who'd gone through something similar, certainly helped. He was a great friend and mentor. Early success was the hand that was dealt me. I certainly couldn't have predicted that success, but in the end I hope I learned from it.
August 17, 2016