By Jay McInerney
Russel and Corrine Calloway are ‘America’s sweethearts’, a couple seen as model among their friends, acquaintances and even by themselves - beautiful, young, on their way to success. “Like Scandinavians, they inhabited a hygienic welfare state the laws of which didn’t necessarily apply outside the realm, and sometimes, when one of them expressed an opinion, an outsider wanted to say, Sure, that might be true for you two, but the rest of us, we’re still trying to find a warm body.” Jeff is their best friend, a writer with a successful first book. The scene is ‘80s New York, a time and place that has its own peculiar zeitgeist - of excessive ambition and greed, designer drugs, of a belief in entitlement, all coupled with soup kitchens and homelessness and street corner crime. Russel and Corrine and Jeff are products of the time; college mates and best friends, winging it through big city life.
Russel is an up and coming editor in a well-known publishing house, making far less money than the times warrant, yet acknowledged as someone who will ‘make it’. He exemplifies America during those times - “Propp was intrigued by Calloway’s mind precisely because it was so American… standing on firm ground where Victor descried quicksand. Calloway reminded Victor of those cartoon characters who were able to walk on the air so long as they didn’t know there was an abyss underneath them. Naive, in a word - but an interesting, almost exemplary naivete, having to do with youth and an admirable brashness.”
Jeff is Russel’s alter-ego, the successful author, loving his friends, yet unable to let go of his yearning for Corrine, and along the way, trying to ‘fill the big empty’ with drugs and alcohol, finding his own path to self-destruction. In the words of Corrine, he had ‘the dark eyes of an old soul’ as opposed to Russel’s who ‘had boyish wide blue eyes and was born the day before yesterday’.
Corrine is a stockbroker without the soul of one - “How can you like the Clash, punk-socialist band, and sell corporate equity at the same time? That was the inexplicable mystery of being Corrine Calloway at the age of thirty-one.” She is making a bit more money than Russel, yet but she does not really buy into the excessive optimism of the age, advising caution to her clients. But her cautionary advice has no impact on her reckless husband who throws himself into the whirlwind of the stock market bubble, leveraging himself completely, trying to make a bid for his publishing firm with the support of an unscrupulous Wall Street raider. Russel is sucked into the dream of big success and when, as dreams often do, it crashes along with the stock market, he wakes up to the reality of debt, a failing marriage and a broken friendship.
It is a simple enough story, of the fading of youth’s certainties, of a generation learning about what it means to fail, about the real meaning of relationships, about the impermanence of so many things, including life. Russel and Corrine grow up into the sort of adulthood that includes words like compromise and settling and loss.
It’s a story we have all heard before. You could say all great literature is really about the journey of growing up. McInerney has his own way of telling it though. Clever lines, pretty passages, descriptions that bring alive the time and place. “..there came a moment in February when the gray sky seemed to drop so low it brushed the top of one’s hair, while the slush reached over the tops of shoes and the dry skin on one’s face felt as if it were being stretched on a rack and cured for glove leather. Love itself seemed old and worn-out, like the shoes bleached white and brittle from the salt. This was the day that newcomers to the city called a travel agent, the old hands already holding tickets to warm islands.” And the dulling realization of impending adulthood - “He wanted to say he couldn’t live without her, but he was afraid that somewhere along the line he might have lost the romantic fanaticism of innocence which allowed him to host such absolute beliefs… By the time she hung up he felt dull and heavy, uncertain of anything except, perhaps, that his heart would never be simple again.”
McInerney can pack a punch with his word play. At the end, we share with Russel and Corrine that tinge of sadness at a world where the glitter is just a bit more faded, where ‘brightness and beauty and youth falling like snow out of the sky all around them, gold dust falling to the streets and washing away in the rain outside the church, down the gutters into the sea.’, where ‘intimacy with loss’ just gets a bit more pronounced as days go by. Adulthood as we all know, is not particularly appetizing. McInerney’s language makes the passage to it bearable.