Whether it was Edith Wharton at the turn of the 20th century or John Cheever in the 1950s and ’60s, New York City has never lacked for chroniclers of its mores. Perhaps a century from now, cultural historians will plumb the works of Jay McInerney to discern what life was like there in the two decades between the explosion of Wall Street wealth and the grim aftermath of 9/11. His keen-eyed depiction of that period is generously displayed in How It Ended, his volume of 26 new and collected stories.
Fans of McInerney novels like Bright Lights, Big City and Story of My Life (this collection contains the stories that evolved into those works, along with several of his others), will recognize classic McInerney characters in their natural habitats like TriBeCa and the Meatpacking District: they’re dabblers in drugs; they work at jobs whose sometimes glamorous trappings disguise their emptiness of purpose; and they drift through relationships. Few of the protagonists of these tales get what they want, but like Sabrina, whose surprise party for her husband in “Everything Is Lost” spawns a nasty surprise for their marriage, most seem to get what they deserve.
Not all of McInerney’s stories focus on his New York City archetypes. “In the North-West Frontier Province,” his first story and one that attracted the attention of George Plimpton at The Paris Review, is the chilling tale of a botched drug deal on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. For anyone who wonders about the toxic blend of narcissism and recklessness that propelled former presidential candidate John Edwards into a career-wrecking affair, “Penelope on the Pond” will offer some useful insights.
McInerney’s prose doesn’t mimic the spareness of two of his mentors, Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff, and the world he inhabits seems distant from the monochromatic milieu they describe. Still, his stark depiction of a slice of modern American life that may be passing away before our eyes, as the title of this volume ironically suggests, is no less perceptive and real.