Emperor's clothes in the high-flying '80s

Monday Book Review

June 21, 1993|By Dave Edelman

BRIGHTNESS FALLS. By Jay McInerney. Vintag Contemporaries. 416 pages. $12. ALTHOUGH the Reagan-Bush era only recently ended, writer Jay McInerney heard the bells tolling for it years ago. In his 1984 novel, "Bright Lights, Big City," Mr. McInerney predicted the end simply by using the fundamental law of gravity: What goes up must come down. Mr. McInerney's vision of the shallowness of success inspired an entire corpus of yuppie philosophers intent on exposing the dark side of Reagan-era prosperity.

Mr. McInerney's new novel, "Brightness Falls," revolves around the stock-market crash of 1987, when American business leaders suddenly found themselves suspended in midair, like cartoon characters. Within 24 hours, corporate empires built on sand silently collapsed, taking hordes of enterprising young opportunists with them.

"Brightness Falls" centers on Russell and Corrine Calloway, two principled and socially conscious yuppies who find themselves meandering down the path of corporate warfare at just the wrong time. Russell has a promising position in the venerable publishing house of Corbin, Dern and Co., but he gripes that he doesn't have the flexibility he needs in his work.

His solution is right out of the '80s: He concocts a scheme for a hostile takeover of his bosses. Soon Russell is swinging with the Big Bad Boys on Wall Street, dining in chic Manhattan restaurants and standing on top of a world that's about to turn upside down.

The sudden shift in the Calloways' lifestyle is more than Corrine can take. She quits her Wall Street job and stays at home, trying to combat the demons of depression, loneliness and anorexia.

If "Brightness Falls" has a moral, it's that substance is more important than style. The fable about the emperor's new clothes appears throughout the novel in several permutations. Sometimes the "new clothes" are drugs and alcohol; usually, they're simply the fads and fashions of the time. "Brightness Falls" is a novel about hot air, about the gossip and glitter used to repackage ideas that never worked.

The Calloways' story is only the thread that ties everything together. Mr. McInerney has woven several subplots in the background that show that this shallowness is universal. Black publishing agent Washington Lee calculates the anti-racism protest against his company for its business potential, not its moral value. Legendary novelist Victor Propp lives for 20 years off the advances on his second novel, despite the fact that nobody's sure he's writing one. Writer Jeff Pierce chooses the road of drug addiction and decadence to avoid the problems of success.

What distinguishes Mr. McInerney's writing is a dynamic prose style that draws more from contemporary film than anything else. His writing derives from the ear and the eye, which gives the book visceral impact without a lot of lengthy cerebral detours. "Brightness Falls" is also crammed full of snappy metaphors.

By book's end, Mr. McInerney finally comes to terms with the "me decade." One can only hope that he will find enough material to keep us entertained through the Clinton-era '90s.

Dave Edelman graduated last month from Johns Hopkins University. He writes from Baltimore.

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