Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Deftly summons human frailties of New Yorkers

The Last Bachelor by Jay McInerney
Bloomsbury R279,95

This is the latest collection of short stories by Jay McInerney, who shot to prominence in 1984 with the publication of Bright Lights, Big City. The collection, largely peopled by those who call New York or its neighbouring environs home, is clearly set in a post 9/11 world.

While one story, 'I Love you, Honey', directly deals with the events of that day, there are oblique references to the day that changed America forever, and scarred that country and New Yorkers.

But this is not a collection about that tragic day, or its aftermath. It's a book peopled by ordinary people doing all the things that people do: bruise and punish each other with their infidelities, set out to marry rich men and have Thanksgiving parties where the muck of the past is raked through with regularity.

Although it's set mainly in New York, several of the characters have roots in the South, and the languid, humid South is contrasted with the more frenetic, neurotic mores of the north.

There are some lighter, fun pieces too, and McInerney shows a witty hand in 'Summary Judgement' in which a social climber who has "passed the first blush of youth", sets out to capture a rich man after the death of her husband leaves her in debt. The story is cattily delicious: there are hints of impropriety in Alysha de Sante's past, there are underhand dealings as she sets out to snag a businessman, and we watch as she reels him in, and cheer when she makes a fatal error.

Infidelity and its effects are dealt with in three of the stories, the aforementioned 'I Love you, Honey', 'Invisible Fences' and 'Putting Daisy Down'. In each of these tightly constructed tales, the married couples punish each other in ways that are scarcely imaginable. A woman has abortions to punish the wandering eye of her husband in the ironically titled, 'I Love you, Honey'; in 'Putting Daisy Down', a title that gives away the ending, a woman demands her husband put his 10-year-old cat to sleep, but pays the price as the story closes, and again we cheer.

Meanwhile, in 'Invisible Fences' Susan must pay the price for her infidelity as she and her husband start picking up men in bars to take home at night.

Observes her husband Dean: "When you're playing outside the regular borders, it's important to have rules and boundaries." But playing outside of the rules doesn't always lead to happiness: "I made her tell me everything. I was tortured by visions of her treachery, by my own roiling filthy imagination ? until we both realised that the actual circumstances would never be enough to match the visions in my head."

In 'The Madonna of Turkey Season' we are introduced to a family who have lost their mother and wife to cancer. The scene is played with yearly frequency: the father becoming maudlin, the brothers pushing against each other in ways that cannot be forgiven. At the heart of the story is the unhappiness the family feels over one of the brothers, Brian, who has written a play, subsequently made into a film, which explores the death of their mother and introduces a note of infidelity in the relationship of the parents.

It's hard to make doubt disappear once the seed has been planted, and hard to forgive the brother for planting the seed. Hard too, not to believe that Brian may have been privy to a deathbed confession none of the others were witness to. And it's hard to see the failings of a mother who has died too young: "We always believed in you Mother, more than anything, but we never for a moment thought you were human."

In 'Penelope on the Pond' a woman waits in a remote pond for her lover, a senator campaigning for the president, and yet to announce a forthcoming divorce. Out of sight of the tabloids, it's ultimately not the blogger journalist who will drive a knife into their relationship, but the smooth-talking wannabe president himself.

In the quietly thoughtful 'The Last Bachelor' Ginny encounters her long lost lover, AG, in the weekend before his first marriage at the ripe age of 40. The story passes back in time, detailing the dalliances of AG, who feels it's time to finally settle down.

When he visits Ginny the night before his nuptials, bringing lines of coke, old secrets are revealed, old loves given an audience. This is a tender, wise story, somewhat sad in execution. And sometimes, seems to be the message of the story, it really is too late to do the right thing.

Published in The Star, Tonight, February 26 2009

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