Brightness Falls by Jay McInerney (1992)
Genre: Literary Fiction | My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Brightness Falls is one of those rare books that manages to be both funny in its absurdity and terribly sad, in equal measures. Ostensibly the story of golden married couple Russell and Corrine Calloway, the book paints a disturbing picture of 1987 New York in all its excesses.
To be honest, I’m a little surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. I picked it up as a bit of research for my own New York novel, but I wasn’t necessarily expecting to be entertained. This isn’t the kind of book where you emotionally invest in characters who are inherently good, if flawed. McInerney’s characters wear their flaws on their sleeves so that one almost develops a love-hate relationship with them. I did genuinely felt for Corrine, who’s stuck between wanting a successful career—or at least wanting the financial status that comes with it—and wanting to start having children. I didn’t, however, feel sorry for Russell, who decides he wants to buy out his publishing house despite having no money, and then spends half the book resisting having an affair (spoiler alert: he can’t hold out against the pull of sex with a woman who’s not his wife. Hashtag: not all men).
For all the ways this book plays into typical narratives, it’s still a very thoughtful book. For all the moments I laughed at the absurdity of Russell and Corrine’s social life, there were the brief glimpses into how the other half lives. A huge subplot involves Russell’s best friend, Jeff, as he descends into heroin addiction; meanwhile, Corrine volunteers at a mission serving food to homeless men, many of whom are also fighting addictions of their own. McInerney makes sure we see all sides of the excesses of the ‘80s and he doesn’t spare our potential feelings about it either.
My main problem—*spoiler alert*—is in what happens to Jeff. After coming out of rehab, Jeff obviously relapses and ultimately dies “of pneumonia.” It’s clear, to me at least, that Jeff died of AIDS, which he contracted from unsafe needle use; yet the book doesn’t make this clear—probably because in 1992 even mentioning AIDS wasn’t really done. Still, I wish this storyline had been more explicit to draw attention to the crisis that was going on at the time.
I certainly don’t think this book is for everyone. It’s definitely dated, particularly in its treatment of racial issues and subtle homophobia. Overall, though, it was an enlightening read, and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens to the characters in the next installment.