The Short Version: Twenty-six short stories, new and old, spanning the length of McInerney’s illustrious career so far.
The Review: This book – this collection – succeeds on a number of levels. First of all, it’s fascinating to see McInerney’s writing process laid bare. The first story in this collection, “It’s Six A.M. Do You Know Where You Are?”, was the story that would later become Bright Lights, Big City – but it isn’t quite the same. There are whole sections of it that are the same, of course, but it’s like the novel condensed into a tiny seed – like a time-lapse film of a plant sprouting shown in reverse. There’s other stories here that are seeds of later McInerney, although I haven’t read those books. The Calloways, who apparently lead two of his later novels, appear in a story… and Alison Poole appears a number of times, in new pieces as well as the short story that turned into Story of My Life. Also, I had no idea that Alison Poole = Rielle Hunter. Crazy, right? But also not surprising. There’s a story near the end of this collection, a new one, called “Penelope on the Pond” that was written in 2008 that revisits Ms. Poole – who survived McInerney’s novels as well as two of Bret Easton Ellis’ – in light of the John Edwards scandal. That was a rather interesting touch on the relationship between fiction and art.
The thing about McInerney is that no one in his stories is entirely happy. Whereas his contemporary Ellis writes stories about terrible people, McInerney writes stories about ordinary people and how they come to do terrible things. Drugs, sex, booze, lying, cheating, stealing – the things we do to stave off the realizations of our own “quiet desperation” are the real meat of McInerney’s stories. And yet I don’t feel depressed after reading them. Some of them, yes, are quite sad. Some of them, though, are quite funny. There are a handful of more boring or less engaging stories – “The March” was a late-game snoozer, for sure – that could’ve been let go to make the collection even more potent… but at the same time, this is a career retrospective of sorts. It’s important to see McInerney writing about everything that we expect him to be writing about – from the drugs and hedonism of Lower Manhattan in the ’80s to the rich spoiled Manhattanites of the ’90s to what it means to be in New York after 9/11. A lot of the stories post-2000 have some sort of reference to 9/11 or to our current political climate. I remember criticism being leveled at McInerney the same way it was leveled at Ian McEwan – why are you guys writing about this? But they wrote about it for the same reason we read it: to try and deal with something we can only really comprehend when we don’t look at it dead-on. Some of the more recent McInerney stories do feel a little dated – in a way that the hedonist ’80s stories manage to escape, interestingly enough – because of that fact of being tied down to ‘current events’ and there’s a whole lot of discussion of, 10 years later, is it time for us to move on?
The ethics aside, the stories are all – to a T – brilliantly written. McInerney is one of the most talented writers with a quip – even the darkest or strangest of stories have something amusing about them. He’s also, I realize, incredibly good at piercing into the true soul of a human being. I didn’t really notice that when I read Bright Lights, Big City – but that was an early novel. It’s a great novel but flawed – the sudden outburst of Emotion at the end feels undeserved. Whereas now, I realize that he was just finding his feet – but the hints were always there. The human condition? At least, the human condition in a way that I can entirely relate to? Look no further than McInerney.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. Short story collections can be hit or miss – but this is nearly all hits. There are a few stories that feel like dead weight, keeping this from any kind of true ‘perfection’, and the less-than-optimistic look at humanity can be a little wearing over time – but I was never bored while reading this collection. Each story was perfectly crafted to bring you in, intrigue you, and wrap it all up in time to start another one. His preface makes this point – short stories have to be sharp and clear, otherwise they don’t work at all. Happily, every single one of these stories is like an icicle. A brilliant read for an early autumn weekend.