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The Search For 'Brilliance'
on 29 October 2000
'The hour I spent with Amanda made me yearn for something,' recalls Benjamin Braddock in 'My Public Service', one of the ten stories in Jay McInerney's successful first collection of short prose fiction. Amanda is a starlet who briefly canoodles with Benjamin on her way to a Senator's bed. Benjamin, part of the Senator's campaign team, wonders about his yearning. 'Not exactly beauty or sex or power,' he reflects. 'I can only call it brilliance, like a surfeit of life.' In *How It Ended* McInerney's protagonists search for 'brilliance', and each time it turns out to be a will-o'-the-wisp.
'Brilliance' takes different forms, but it is always to do with status, often to do with glamour and sometimes to do with ideals. The Senator gets the girl, not Benjamin, who later finds himself doing PR for a South American dictator whom he abhors. In 'Third Party' Alex goes to Paris to romantically act out his dejection, after having been dumped by his girlfriend in New York. He plays along when two glamorous Parisians seem to mistake him for someone of social distinction. Easily manipulated by them, he is told, finally, 'You're a nobody.'
McInerney is fascinated by the ways in which becoming a 'somebody' makes you a 'nobody.' Martin, a scriptwriter who plots his way to success in 'The Business', remarks that in Hollywood 'the story is always Faust.' One gets the impression that you don't get much in exchange for your soul. Jared, in 'Getting In Touch with Lonnie', is a successful actor. But one feels he might well be joining his wife, in an upmarket mental hospital, soon - especially since his much sought-after dealer is already there.
McInerney also focuses on the less glamorous, 'role-model' worlds of law and medicine. The narrator of the title story, 'How it Ended', imagines himself as a mentor when he meets a young lawyer. But when the other man relates his outlaw past the narrator feels that not only his profession but also he has been besmirched. McClarty, in 'Con Doctor', gets a thrill when the guards at the prison where he works refer to him as 'Doctor.' Yet he still feels like 'a pretender'. His job and beautiful wife and home are less real to him than his dreams of being attacked by inmates and his memories of drug addiction. Success is always fragile in McInerney's fiction.
These are pessimistic stories (the exception, perhaps, being 'The Queen and I'). But McInerney's trademark sharp humour, familiar to readers of *Bright Lights, Bright City* and *Story of My Life*, illuminates the collection. 'Reunion' provides a good example. The narrator's girlfriend, Tory, is asked by her born-again sister if she loves Jesus. 'Do I look like a necrophiliac to you?' she responds. Told that she might run but never hide from her saviour, Tory snaps: 'But can you get a restraining order, is what I want to know.'
We shouldn't be surprised that these are such well-crafted short stories. The author's virtues lend themselves to the short story form. Like his fellow American Nicholson-Baker, McInerney has always been at his best when concentrating on one character over a short period of time. For this reason, *Bright Lights, Big City* and *Story of My Life* work much better than the more ambitious *Brightness Falls.* Interestingly, Russell and Corrine from *Brightness Falls* appear in 'Smoke', one of the stories here. I don't know whether McInerney has re-worked a preliminary sketch for the novel or if he's plundered his old material. The result, though, is an elegantly constructed story that underlines the novel's structural flaws.
In a sense, these are rather old-fashioned short stories, with clear beginnings, middles and endings. One story ends with a death; 'Simple Gifts' and 'Reunion' end with moving epiphanies. The title story - really a story-within-a-story, in which one character relates to the narrator how he met his wife - is the most open-ended of the ten.
This collection proves McInerney to be far more than his reputation as a novelist of New York hedonism and high-life. Revealing 'the dark underbelly of the American dream' (to quote the dust jacket) might be as American as apple pie, but it must be said that Jay McInerney does it remarkably well.