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Scott Lax Blog

So How Good is Jay McInerney?

I've just completed Jay McInerney's new and collected story collection, HOW IT ENDED. While I've been reading nonfiction and some other books during my reading of it, I nonetheless read it pretty much straight through.

I think McInerney should be considered one of the best American story writers. You can dislike his subject matter (often rich, entitled New Yorkers from one place or another, and their sometimes annoying first-world problems), but it's awfully hard to dispute his heartfelt telling, and his deep respect for and command of the English language. He's usually compared (somewhat unfavorably) to Fitzgerald -- though any comparison is a compliment, something akin to playing in the NFL and losing…after all, you're still good enough to play in the NFL -- because of their themes. I think that misses the point.

While both authors story material dwells on the desire for wealth, glamour, sophistication, romance (and loss of same), and while both have characters that, while flawed, are nonetheless privileged beyond what most can ever imagine, that's not what makes them comparable. (It does make them interesting, and at least McInerney stays true to what he calls his “obsessions.”)

No, not that…rather, it's their ability to tell stories with deceptively simple, hard-won wisdom and a languid, terrified grace.

While McInerney constructs breathtakingly good sentences on occasion, his short-storytelling on whole isn't as perfect as Fitzgerald's, at his best. Yet. But he's still healthy, at least I hope he is, and his recent stories are moving in a different direction, deeper instead of wider, perhaps, and he has time to move into Philip Roth and Tobias Wolff territory. Maybe. Who knows? Fitzgerald drove a dagger into the heart of some of his endings, McInerney uses a pen-knife, and sometimes a pin. His endings are often good... they just don't destroy you like Fitzgerald's. But some come close.

And he understands wine like he understands writing. Which is to say -- and I'm projecting hopefully -- that McInerney, a highly entertaining wine writer as well ( an admirable day gig) understands that what he still has to learn about both wine and storytelling is unlimited. As it should be.

Finally, his main character in the last story in his collection, "The Last Batchelor," drives sixteen hours to Bread Loaf to punch a poet in the nose. While my best friends at Bread Loaf tended to be poets, and I never wanted to punch one in the nose, I did enjoy that scene, which brought back a memory:

One night at the "Barn" at Bread Loaf, long ago, I think I broke up a potentially vicious fight. A disgruntled contributor went after a faculty member that he thought gave the contributor’s significant other short shrift at workshop. “Turn around, lower your fists, or you’ll regret what you’re about to do for the rest of your life,” I said, quite stupidly, and stood between him and the burly faculty member who looked like he was about to clean his clock. To my shock and and great relief, the contributor backed off. I heard he left the conference.

But I digress. McInerney is a very fine writer. If nothing else, you may want to read him for his elegant and brightly constructed sentences. If you enjoy his stories, so much the better.  Read More