In Bright, Precious Days, author Jay McInerney continues a story that has stretched out over two decades, surrounded by difficult financial times, political events that made history and people who try to hold onto what’s left of their lives. In 1992, Jay McInerney introduced us to Manhattan golden couple Russell and Corinne Calloway with his novel Brightness Falls. He chronicled the struggles and complications of a young couple trying to be succeed in New York, while dealing with the aggregated factor of marriage, complicated friendships, sordid affairs, and tense professional dynamics.
What astonishes the most about Russell and Corinne is how absolutely and utterly imperfect they are. Both are unfaithful almost from the start, Corinne’s transgression even more significant because it’s with her husband’s best friend. But still they profess an almost reverent love for each other that stops them from considering the possibility of ending their marriage.
In the second book featuring the Calloways, The Good Life, Russell and Corinne are now in their forties. They’re caught up in the banality of their upper middle class Manhattan life in TriBeCa and the newness of parenthood, when the tragic events of 9/11 strike deep in the heart of New York and its inhabitants, who will never see life the same way again.
The aftermath of so much death, despair and horror affects Corinne in particular and she starts to work in a soup kitchen in an attempt to reassure herself that she is contributing something. It is there that she forms a connection with wealthy entrepreneur Luke McGavock, and is drawn into an affair with him. Corinne is exhilarated but fearful at the same time. This relationship with Luke and the feelings he awakens, might mean the end of her marriage.
Russell is also in a conundrum of his own, more related to disappointments in his career than his flirtations and entanglements with other women. As Corinne begins to fall in love with Luke and out of enchantment with her marriage and her husband, it seems that the Calloways’ marriage has reached the end of the line. But one night something happens that allows Luke and Corinne to realize that they are not as clear and honest with each other as they thought they were, and the affair disintegrates just as quickly as it started.
The reason for backtracking lengthily to McInerney’s previous books before delving fully into Bright, Precious Days is that to understand this book, one must also understand the Calloways’ past. Their lives, their interactions with their friends and family, and even the city (a city which McInerney clearly knows inside out) are intricate parts of their existence.
In Bright, Precious Days the year is 2008. The country faces an unprecedented financial crisis and a huge change in the political and historical arena. For the first time, an African-American has a clear shot of becoming president and the hope that was lost with so many jobs and lives, has another opportunity at resurgence. Manhattan has become a disemboweled utopia, and its inhabitants are forced to contend with the wreckage that’s left behind.
Russell and Corinne are in their fifties, older, but evidently and unfortunately, not wiser. Russell is faced with economic collapse in the wake of the crisis. Corinne teeters between feelings of unhappiness and dissatisfaction regarding Russell and her marriage, her children and community work the only things keeping her afloat. The situation becomes even more precarious when Luke McGavock walks back into her life after years of absence, but effective in stirring up old feelings and making her question again what she really wants.
The fact that once again Corinne contemplates a love affair with Luke not only raises questions about her true feelings for Russell, but also about her ideas about love and relationships. Is Corinne in love with the idea of being in love more than she is with the men she claims to love? She convinces herself that she loves Luke but she also claims to love Russell, and even asks herself if one can love two people. Can Russell and Corinne’s marriage be really “one of the great love stories” as she professes to him in a letter, when for the most part their story is based on lies and infidelity?
When in The Good Life Corinne muses that she has never felt for Russell what she feels for Luke, and is convinced enough of this to contemplate leaving her husband but in the end changes her mind (as does Luke) due to a mutual withholding of the truth, what does this say about her? About them? Are any of these relationships truly significant? And what does it say about Russell, his obvious carelessness when it comes to his marriage, oblivious to how his wife is slowly slipping away from him.
The fact that McInerney introduces the Luke-Corrine song-and-dance again is in hindsight somewhat predictable. Their relationship never had proper closure in The Good Life, and it’s possible that this re-opening was necessary. What perhaps seems a bit redundant is the do-over of the affair, once again revisiting the same mid-life crisis mutual sexual obsession fueled by their different motives. For Corinne, it is Russell’s abandonment and his unwillingness to share his financial dilemmas with her. For Luke, it boils down to coveting what he can’t have, evidenced clearly in both of his failed marriages.
McInerney can indeed be read as a modern day Faulkner, evidenced in his frequent use of stream of consciousness and introspection with his characters. Towards the end of the book, Corinne quotes a phrase from a letter Russell wrote to her when they were still young and hopeful about their relationship, which is in turn a quote from Coriolanus: “When the sea was calm, all boats alike/show’d mastership in floating”.
Taken at face value, as is clearly Corinne’s intent, the Calloways’ marriage has come out of countless storms stronger and can perhaps be deemed now virtually unsinkable. This may be in the end the true value of their marriage – the ability to withstand weakness, half-truths, secrecy, economic distress, and betrayal. Yes, Bright, Precious Days is in many ways about the frivolity of the Manhattan financial and intellectual elite and their Gatsby-esque way of living and loving. But it equally holds a powerful message about relationships and marriage – that they are made of more than physical passion, forged rather in the ability to move forward together, and stronger after the battle.