"How It Ended: New and Collected Stories" (Alfred A. Knopf, 352 pages, $25.95), by Jay McInerney: Novels put Jay McInerney on the literary map. His 1985 cocaine-addled Gotham fable "Bright Lights, Big City" was his ticket to stardom and established him as the head of what the media termed the "literary Brat Pack."
Since then, novels have paid his bills and won him no small amount of well-deserved critical acclaim. But McInerney is also a master of the short fiction format. The evidence is collected in his latest book, "How It Ended."
The usual McInerney trademarks are here, namely New York, money, sex, cocaine and fast living. His protagonists are almost universally attractive, mostly wealthy and often famous. But at its core, the glamour is just window dressing for people who are just as unhappy as the rest of us. McInerney seems to delight in pulling back the curtain on such lives to show the reader that the beautiful people, often aren't.
Infidelity is a favorite theme of McInerney's. He studies it from many different angles in this collection, less as a symptom of lust than of emotional distance between partners. This may be best illustrated by the title story and "Everything Is Lost," which examine how that distance can grow almost unnoticed from the narrowest fissure to a chasm that swallows relationships.
In other tales, such as "Putting Daisy Down" and "I Love You, Honey," infidelity is used as a weapon. Even when the partners encourage each other to stray — as in the swinger narrative "Invisible Fences" — the erotic diversion is more than it appears.
The betrayals McInerney details aren't always sexual in nature. They can be familial, as in "The Debutante's Return" and the particularly moving "The Madonna of Turkey Season" and "Story of My Life." Sometimes they are even political, as in "Penelope on the Pond" and the unnerving "My Public Service."
Although McInerney appears most at home among the elevated strata of society, he isn't afraid to slum it with gutter-dwelling dirt bags ("The Queen and I"), rock 'n' roll bohemians ("Simple Gifts"), or even 9-to-5 wage slaves ("Con Doctor," "The Waiter"). One of the collection's most refreshing reads is "In the North-West Frontier Province," a tale of dissolute backpackers that reads like a taut episode of the National Geographic Channel's "Locked Up Abroad."
Few of these stories have happy endings, or any endings at all, actually. Many of them are startlingly brief, leaving the reader with the feeling that there should be at least half a story remaining. But then, that is likely the point. It's a credit to the author that the characters he crafts are so strong, the reader continues to care what happens to them after the last page is turned.
Many times, McInerney finishes with an O. Henry-style twist that suggests the events to come. Other times, his clues are so subtle that the reader must backtrack to find them. Either way, he keeps you off balance. Although he often returns to many of the same themes and settings, you can't say he's predictable.
Although McInerney has become defined by his novels, consider that he once studied under the legendary short story writers Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff.
"Like most novelists, I cut my teeth writing short stories," McInerney writes in his preface, "and that's one habit I've never been able to break."
Lucky for us, he hasn't.
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