Saturday, April 25, 2009

Can Jay McInerny Shine a Bright Light on Short Stories?

One of the short story collections I'm most looking forward to reading this year is Jay McInerny's How It Ended. Sam Tanenhaus' front page review in the Apr. 26 New York Times Book Review reminds me of what excited me about McInerny when I first read his novel, Bright Lights, Big City, in 1984. Tanenhaus offers McInerny this high praise:
He possesses the literary naturalist's full tool kit: empathy and curiosity, a peeled eye and a well-tuned ear, a talent for building narratives at once intimate and expansive, plausible and inventive.
I agree. I immediately connected with Bright Lights. It was a great read, funny and edgy, but it also had deeper levels, which is to say it was more than just a slick surface.

Speaking of slick surfaces, I confess that what drew me to Bright Lights in the first place was its striking cover. (How sad to look at it now and see the extinguished bright lights of the World Trade Center.) The Vintage Contemporaries series of paperback originals that Gary Fisketjohn launched in the 1980s featured a common bold design that immediately caught my eye when I walked into a bookstore. Bright Lights was the first of the Vintage Contemporaries I bought, and it led me to Raymond Carver's Cathedral, Mona Simpson's Anywhere But Here, and Richard Ford's A Piece of My Heart, among others.

Unfortunately, I wasn't as fond of McInerny's next book, Ransom, and press coverage of his personal life soured my enthusiasm for him as a writer--unfairly. His association, which I doubt he sought, with other "Brat Pack" writers, such as Brett Easton Ellis and Tama Janowitz, seemed to tether him to an era that became almost quaint and campy as time went on. Now, I'm looking forward to reconnecting to that time and those feelings, through How It Ended, and to finding connections in the stories between then and now, a period that pretty much constitutes my entire adult life.

Bright Lights, Big City was a big success and sold a ton of copies. I hope How It Ended will, too. Short fiction needs a blockbuster now and then to open up the form to a wider audience. Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth and Steven King's Just After Sunset were best-sellers last year, and I like to think that people who have read those short story collections may be willing to try more. Let's hope Jay McInerny's story-telling gifts will also bring more readers to short fiction.