The stories collected in How It Ended by Jay McInerney spans almost thirty years. They are assembled in no particular order and include McInerney’s first published story as well as a number that he produced rapid fire in 2008. What struck me most about these stories is that I could never guess in what year each was written. I was almost always surprised by the date at the end. This disconcerted me. Rather than being illustrative of a particular style, it suggested stagnation.
The content and characters of How It Ended are particularly fascinated with wealth, beauty and too many drugs. McInerney excavates the terrain of infidelity with much the same vigor as John Updike applied to the same subject. Trust in one’s partner appears to be a naïve fantasy in almost every story, a fundamental I find depressing, inaccurate and a tad sensationalist.
The message in most of McInerney’s stories is that his characters are by and large decent people with relatively good intentions. They just always seem to stray. Whether this means another drink, line of coke or affair, the repercussions are never too severe. Usually the protagonists come to in an alleyway they would prefer to avoid or saddled with lawyers fees they would prefer to avoid. The stakes of the aftermath rarely include death or consequences that might teach these wayward individuals a lesson.
A minor, almost silly, point that I have to mention is McInerney’s utter lack of imagination in the department of names. Being drawn to complex and odd names myself, I was chagrined not only to be acquainted with the regular Tom, Dick, and Harrys, but also with the repetition of monikers. I can understand using a non-descript name once for one protagonist, but then to have another character who takes center stage as well with the same boring name was much too uninspired for my liking.
McInerney roots most of his stories in New York, though there are a few trips to the lush South as well. The lives he describes are either full of riches and glamour or they concern people who are brushing against the linen lapels and satin skirt hems, hoping to get in with the proper crowd and experience the lush life, as is their apparent due. It was difficult for me to feel sympathetic toward these people.
It was not difficult, however, for me to believe that these people exist. McInerney does not use fancy language to describe the fancy lives his characters live. This contributes to the credibility of the conversation and even makes the presence of a potbellied pig fathomable in the master bed. He paints the facts of his protagonists lives clearly, if not coldly.
The stories are delivered in such a well-mannered and matter-of-fact tone that McInerney’s intentions ultimately remain unclear. Is he providing the reader with a peek into the lives of the inordinately wealthy in order to reveal the pitiable qualities of a life of excess and absurd and dangerous luxury? Or is the author asking that the reader to feel empathy for these characters, characters who are just as lost in their lives as those less fortunate financially and far more lost than others?
My inclination was to be somewhat contemptuous. The love stories and indiscretions that McInerney recounts neither struck me in their simplicity, beauty or authenticity. These characters fell in or out of due to boredom or because they lacked imagination. The tragedies and disappointments that these decisions inevitably led to appeared to be exactly what was deserved. As the collection progressed I saw few characters develop any self-awareness and this rendered McInerney’s rich far less valuable than their bank accounts would suggest.