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?