The Last Bachelor, By Jay McInerney

A literary recycler picks over his faded material
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The Independent Culture

He made his name, 25 years ago in Bright Lights, Big City, writing about boom-era New Yorkers who lived high on cocaine and chutzpah and believed that their world was unassailable. He came in for some flak when, in 2006, he documented their assailing in the 9/11 story, The Good Life. With his brash, brilliant, early novels, Jay McInerney laid down a lot of stock with his fans. They will probably forgive him for drawing on those deposits in this collection of short stories, during what are obviously much leaner times.

This isn't the first time that McInerney (right) has recycled his characters and his own life in his fiction, of course. But perhaps it is only now that the frays are starting to show. The story "Penelope on the Pond" revives Alison Poole, the narrator of his 1988 novel Story of My Life, who was herself modelled on a former girlfriend. This time Alison is having an affair with a presidential candidate. She hasn't become any easier to like in the last 20 years; none of his women characters has.

"The Madonna of the Turkey Season" draws on an incident with the author's brother, who objected to a story McInerney wrote about their mother. In this new story, a family of men gather at Thanksgiving to get drunk and fight over their dead mum. Once, a girlfriend "threw the entire uncarved turkey at Brian's head, a scene that eventually showed up in his second play."

These two stories are among the most successful in the collection, being concerned, in different ways, with men. "The Madonna of the Turkey Season" starts and ends with the sainted mother (the titles often contain more information, and the last lines more action, than the stories – very male), but the blokiness of the gathering allows McInerney's cantankerous wit to sparkle. "'I had my great love, how could I settle for anything less,' [the father said] as he poured himself another Smirnoff and the neighbor widows and divorcees dashed themselves against the windowpanes like birds.'" In "Penelope on the Pond", McInerney writing a woman talking about a man thinking about women allows for a cruel humour: the reader can see that the girl is deluded.

Sometimes, certain male American writers are damned, usually unfairly, for hating women. This collection, much more depressingly, seems to despise men. "Recently he and Lanie had been working late," runs a trope that begins in "Love You Honey" and repeats itself often, "and one night she'd kissed him and he'd been unable to resist." A generous reader might assume that McInerney writes about sordid affairs and broken relationships (everyone's having them) in such clichéd terms to show that affairs are necessarily clichéd. A more jaded one would say that he's run out of surprises. Particularly when characters, to reveal their foreignness, refer to the way things are done "in Europe". Where? Has he never left Manhattan?

McInerney is at his best in the title story, which gently acknowledges a sort of writerly weariness without, thank goodness, rubbing it in. "For all his intelligence and eloquence," the womanising last bachelor realises, "the sentiments and even words were the same as those of all spurned lovers." Sadly, this delicate touch is rare. In form and content, "Everything is Lost" says it all. In another clumsy, self-reflexive twist, McInerney has his character say of her boyfriend, a writer: "The women in the stories weren't terribly complex, really... Which said more about his lack of curiosity than it did about her." Hers, or rather his, can be the last word.

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