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How Could You Stop Loving Me?

How It Ended: New and Collected Stories
by Jay McInerney
Knopf, 2009

Here’s an anecdote about Raymond Carver as told by Jay McInerney:

Besides presiding over workshops, [Carver] taught a course called “Form and Theory of the Short Story,” in which we read his favorite practitioners…

At the beginning of each class he would light up a cigarette and ask, “So, what did you think?” Ray’s idea of a good session was one in which these were the last words he spoke. When a student from the English department proper challenged him about his methodology, demanding to know why the class was called “Form and Theory” when there was little of either, Ray nervously sucked on his cigarette and hunched lower in his chair. “Well,” he said after a very long pause, “I guess it’s like we read the stories… and then form our own theories.”

Creative writing majors adore such anecdotes. This one has it all: a great author (and his cigarette), the prissy academic villain who over-intellectualizes Art, the author’s clever, cavalier response, not to mention the author’s cool, laissez faire teaching style, and—this cannot be underemphasized—the use of the familiar name “Ray.” Now let’s recast the anecdote: a great author, enjoying the patronage system that is a university teaching gig, coasts through the school year, doing the least amount of work possible. When confronted by a young scholar who was mislead by a course title that indeed promised a focus on form and theory, the author deflects legitimate criticism with a flip (and stupid) reply, knowing full well he won’t be further challenged because most of his students are there for a kind of benediction: they all hope Raymond Carver will think them brilliant.

McInerney relates this anecdote in his preface to How It Ended: New and Collected Stories, a smart preface that places his short fiction, probably accurately, in the realistic short fiction tradition Carver is in large part responsible for, that places McInerney in a class with Carver (literary and literally), and, inadvertently, reveals that his writing is very much a product of the dominant creative writing workshop aesthetic (mixed with the very similar aesthetic of the big short story markets). Not surprising, and not great, either.

What McInerney has that makes him fun to read and separates him from the middling short fiction that is called “literary” is his wit and his high-profile biography. His wit comes effortlessly; here is an author who is intelligent—ahem! bright—with a biting wit that comes effortlessly from years of cynicism. This, a snatch of dialogue from “Story of My Life”:

How do I look? she goes, checking herself out in the mirror.

Terrific, I say. You’ll be lucky if you make it through cocktails without getting raped.

Can’t rape the willing, she says, which is what we always say.

And in “Philomena,” which is the second really condensed version of the novel Bright Lights, Big City in this volume, the narrator mocks his job and the magazine articles he writes:

I have a job, of sorts. It is called Paying the Rent Until I Write My Original Screenplay About Truth and Beauty. The job description: writing articles about celebrities for a young women’s magazine. A branch of astrology. I’m planning to develop a computer program that will spit these things out with the touch of a few keys, a simple program indeed, since there are so very few variables. Already my word-processing program contains macro keystrokes that instantly call up such revelations as “shuns the Hollywood limelight in favor of spending quality time with his family at his sprawling ranch outside of Livingston, Montana.” (Control, MONT.) And “There’s nothing like being a parent to teach you what really matters in life. The fame, the money, the limos—you can keep it. I mean, being a father / mother is more important to me than any movie role could ever be.” (Alt, BABY.)

It may be a fiction, but the story of McInerney’s life seems to be: left well-off Connecticut family to teach English in Japan, met a gorgeous woman who encouraged his dream of becoming a writer and then dumped him without warning once they were settled in New York City, where it seemed he was doomed to mediocrity in the world of magazine fact-checking, then Bright Lights, Big City, the book and the movie based on the book, lots and lots of drugs, becoming a member of the literary brat pack, and finally the burden, evermore, of following up that first success.

And I like reading that story. And I like the nostalgia that permeates those stories—yes, I was young in the 1980s, I can remember walking down the street singing “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts… when I was five. Not quite precocious enough to be into blow, or to be living in the city with an aspiring model; the nostalgia McInerney brings to his work is intoxicating. It’s no small achievement to make someone who didn’t encounter Bright Lights, Big City until 1990 long for what sounds like a miserable time a decade earlier.

Which is to say that McInerney is a romantic without being maudlin (and to confess that I’m a romantic too).

Unfortunately, if you’re looking for a great short story, you won’t find it here. When McInerney creates a strong voice, as he does in “It’s Six A.M. Do You Know Where You Are?” (which is the first of those two really condensed versions of Bright Lights, Big City) and in “Story of My Life,” written from the point of view of Alison Poole, it’s easy to get swept up in the character’s thoughts. A side-effect, but when there’s a strong voice, McInerney tends not to hang the story on a too-obvious metaphor (like the invisible dog fence in the story—wait for it—“Invisible Fences”) or worse, on a twist ending (“Getting in Touch with Lonnie”).

The titular story centers on an anecdote. Two couples at an exclusive resort meet, and the husband of the younger couple relates to the older couple how he and his wife met. It’s a dramatic and funny anecdote I can imagine McInerney relating to a riveted room at a party, but what’s important about the anecdote is its impact on the husband of the older couple—how it destroys his happiness. His great disappointment is not a twist but a turn, which is good, and it is dramatic, but it’s not powerful because I was never invested in the main character.

Then there are stories such as “The Madonna of Turkey Season” built on a cliché, in this case the dysfunctional family Thanksgiving. He never challenges that cliché. Yet this family’s dysfunction is very amusing, including the thinly disguised McInerney biography, directly addressed in the story:

Brian’s personal life, with all its chaos, Sturm and Drang, was the workshop version of his professional life, a laboratory for drama. And of course, he wrote about us. Mike said at the time that the phrase “thinly disguised” was too chubby by half to describe Brian’s relation to his source material.

As funny as it is, McInerney tells this joke once too often and with too little variation—not only throughout this collection, but—in one way or another—in nearly every book he’s every written.

The repeated motif isn’t usually a joke, especially that of the young man asking without hope of answer, “How could you stop loving me?” as A.G. asks in “The Last Bachelor,” as many characters ask across McInerney’s entire oeuvre. That question can be applied to women, to parents, to New York City, to the economy, etcetera, and McInerney asks it of all these things. It’s a pathetic question absolutely worthy of repeated literary examination, but unlike Monet’s haystacks, McInerney too infrequently casts on it a new light.

McInerney relies on wit and cleverness and charm, all of which he has, all of which make his stories highly enjoyable reads, but which leave them lacking, too. Compare him with F. Scott Fitzgerald, as people often do because the subjects of their works are so similar (the new values of their generation, the rich, beautiful but hollow and destructive people, women especially but men too, the high price of substance abuse, the fruitless search for an ideal—often embodied by a woman, and cosmopolitan life, especially New York City cosmopolitan life), and you’ll instantly see what’s missing. Read Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited” and you may be moved—that is, you can be moved, because of the depth of characterization. Not just of the main character but of secondary characters, characters who are presented unfairly by the narrator and yet by virtue of Fitzgerald’s skill, the reader knows the truth, and the truth is complex and the situation made by that complexity is (simply) moving.

McInerney affects: he is nostalgic, he is sentimental, he’s a little bit sad, all of which points to deeper meaning that isn’t there. He isn’t a shallow writer, but he’s not profound. How it Ended is a good book, it just isn’t great.

There’s yet another way to read the Carver anecdote. Carver, whose confidence has been shattered by his drinking and by Gordon Lish’s abusive editing, is teaching a course that isn’t a workshop, a course that requires more than casual preparation he hasn’t done in part because he thinks he can’t. So when a serious student who expects more asks Carver to better explain the course he’s teaching, Carver immediately recasts the question as a challenge he can’t meet. Trembling, he lights a cigarette to hide behind, to keep his composure. An answer occurs, though he can’t quite parse it, so, “Well…” he says, and then, “I guess it’s like we read the stories…” there’s a punch line, he sees it, and without thinking as much hopes that a joke will deflect attention from the question, “and then form our own theories.”

___

Adam Golaski is the author of Worse Than Myself. New work will appear in Torpedo, The Lifted Brow, and Little Red Leaves. He edits New Genre and for Flim Forum Press.

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