420 pages. $23.
Set in New York City in 1987, the year that featured the October "Black Monday" stock market crash, "Brightness Falls" is Jay McInerney's fourth and most ambitious novel. In it, he attempts to document the excesses of the '80s as experienced and/or perpetrated by a representative cross section of Manhattan's high life and low life, with emphasis decidedly on the former.
Tom Wolfe blazed this trail five years ago in "The Bonfire of the Vanities," and Mr. McInerney's book is clearly modeled on it. Even Mr. McInerney's prose is Wolfe-like, at least in its initial attempts to provide a panoramic view of social chaos:
"After nearly collapsing in bankruptcy during the seventies, [the] city had experienced a gold rush of sorts; prospecting with computers and telephones, financial miners had discovered fat veins of money coursing beneath the cliffs and canyons of the southern tip of Manhattan. . . . The electronic buzz of fast money hummed beneath the wired streets, affecting all the inhabitants, making some of them crazy with lust and ambition, others angrily impoverished, and making the comfortable majority feel poorer."
The difference is that while Mr. Wolfe, a social satirist, populated "Bonfire" with hateful gargoyles who obviously deserved their fates, Mr. McInerney, at bottom a realistic novelist, portrays his characters as basically likable people who allow the spirit of the age to overwhelm them and temporarily suspend their better instincts. Russell and Corrine Calloway, Mr. McInerney's protagonists, are a married couple in their early 30s. Russell, an editor at a prestigious publishing house, is committed to literature and liberal politics, and Corrine, a reluctant stockbroker, volunteers at a mission on Bleecker Street.
The novel gets under way as Russell, whose employers are backing away from a promise to promote one of his pet projects (a book on Nicaragua), begins to feel that his star is falling. Fueled by corporate-takeover fever, he uncharacteristically devises a plan to buy the publishing house out from under his bosses.
VTC Russell's newfound appetite for the deal (and for the company of his business partners, a seductive investment banker in particular) leads him to spend more time away from home, abandoning Corrine, who has decided that she wants to quit her job and have a child. With the marriage now squarely on the rocks, and with Wall Street daily reaching ever-giddier highs, something seems about to give.
Mr. McInerney's talent for plotting, while perhaps suited to the shorter, more intimate novels he has published to date, is tested sorely in a novel with the scope and range of "Brightness Falls." He occupies virtually the entire first half of the novel with introductions of the dramatis personae, whom he usually depicts in static set pieces that serve more to capture the lingo and style of particular social milieus than to advance the story:
"Minky was one of the young transatlantic set, which, in its more expansive moments, brushed up against some of the indigenous population groups -- like one of the kisses with which members greeted each other. The kiss was actually two kisses, one on each cheek, or rather, two simulated kisses, actually physical contact being avoided in the interest of makeup preservation and of easing the strain of performance in the case of those who actually couldn't stand the sight of one another. The kiss had to come via the continent, as had a third of the guest list for Minky's party."
Then, once the players are all in place, Mr. McInerney abandons the book to the engine of pure plot. Despite an occasional patch of vivid writing, most of the story is told breathlessly, in the slack tone of a drugstore paperback. As the novel progresses, he seems to lose his interest in social commentary, becoming increasingly bogged down in the complicated interactions of his characters. When he finally gets down to the climax, it feels muted, distant, a momentary distraction:
"Corrine was raking leaves again on Monday when her mother came out on the back porch with a mug of coffee and a cigarette.
" 'You picked a good time to leave your job. I was just listening to the news -- the stock market's going completely down the drain.' "
Like Corrine Calloway, who, having left Russell, ends up watching Black Monday on the TV set in her mother's Connecticut living room, we feel that we've been "cheated of a ringside seat on a historical event." Mr. McInerney narrows his narrative focus from social satire to domestic realism so drastically that we can't help wondering whether he had fully worked out his intentions before sitting down to write.
The story of a couple's going through a marital crisis would have worked better on a smaller scale; by couching it in a Gotterdammerung, he both trivializes it and uses up too much of the air the larger story needs in order to breathe. At the end of the novel, we're given a handful of home truths about the tenuousness of marriage and friendship, but the bigger issues with which Mr. McInerney began the book have long since slipped from his grasp.
Mr. Vitale is a writer living in Iowa City.