The Last Bachelor, By Jay McInerney

Manhattan's glamorous people are beginning to tire of the party in these gossipy new short stories

Reviewed,Helen Brown
Sunday 18 January 2009 01:00 GMT

"God allows us all a swimming pool of vodka and a bathtub full of cocaine," says one of the many Manhattanites trying to figure out if he's reached his "party quota" in Jay McInerney's new collection of short stories. The man in question quits the powder after realising he's started in on his second bathtub, but most are still working their way through the vodka pool and cheating on their wives. Leading us behind the bedroom doors of New York's pretty and privileged people, McInerney's 12 tales work on our appetite for gossip like literary episodes of Sex and the City.

What McInerney does so well is to capture the weariness of human histories repeating – the paunching playboy, the gold-digging vixen and the Waspy princess having her summer fling with the help – and to throw in that delicious detail that makes each unique. And while the menfolk all seem preset to cheat, in time-honoured fashion, with the sort of girls who open their apartment doors in aquamarine lingerie, the wives retaliate in quite unexpected, troubling ways. Nobody's left a grip on the moral high ground.

There's a sense that, even if age and wisdom weren't slowing them down, 9/11 should have called time on the selfishness of New York's party people. One character is in bed with his mistress when the planes hit. Mortified, he turns to God and finds himself cheating again, Graham Greene style, by rekindling a secret passion for the Catholic Church. After mass he can't face his irreligious, pregnant, long-betrayed wife because "it would be like smoking a cigarette after running a marathon".

The guilty thrill of McInerney's fiction comes from the knowledge that he paints from life. The author who headed New York's literary "brat pack" in the 1980s is now well into his fifties and on to his fourth marriage (to a publishing heiress, having previously espoused a model, a writer and a Southern belle). And he has acknowledged that "mine is not an autonomous imagination". So we can't help wondering if the Southern belle of one story is based on his third wife – did the real woman insist they share their bed with a pot-bellied pig? McInerney upset his family by writing about his mother's deathbed confession and here you'll find a character doing exactly that. Then there's the return of Alison Poole. Her character first appeared in his 1988 novel Story of My Life, and was later borrowed by Bret Easton Ellis for roles in American Psycho and Glamorama. McInerney has said Poole was based on his former girlfriend Lisa Druck, who was recently revealed to have been the mistress of the unsuccessful presidential candidate John Edwards. And here's Alison Poole as the mistress of a presidential candidate, portrayed as a patient modern Penelope to the politician's Odysseus – only the suitors she must fend off are tabloid hacks and bloggers.

I've often found McInerney, at novel length, too much the swimming pool of vodka. But the short story is the perfect measure for his brand of beautifully distilled prose and dry sophistication. Each tale here has a clever little kick. And each comes with a twist.

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