Required Reading: How It Ended, by Jay McInerney

The relationships in Jay McInerney’s new short story collection How It Ended end pretty much as one would think — with tears, confession, self-hatred, or resignation. And in between there is that time-honored McInerney trope — drug use and impulsive sex. But something else emerges in these 26 stories, written in 26 different years.

Due to the scrambled chronology of the collection, the reader never really knows where he is, or when he is, but he definitely knows with whom. McInerney resurrects some of his classic characters — the opening vignette is the very one that inspired Bright Lights, Big City — and Russell and Corrine Callahan get a double take as we glimpse both their young adult beginnings (“Smoke”) and middle-aged misgivings (“The March”), bookends to the 1992 novel Brightness Falls. Even Alison Poole, that minx based on McInerney’s former girlfriend Rielle Hunter (yes, that Rielle Hunter) resurfaces since her days in Story of My Life in her new role as a politico’s mistress-in-hiding.

But, rather than the revolutionary second-person narrative that put the name McInerney on the map, and stampeded through the ’80s literary scene like a herd of marching Bolivians, these stories take on a subtler, softer style. The collection invites perhaps unwelcome comparisons to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short fiction and it’s easy to see why: McInerney writes from that special perch — as someone who is absolutely on the inside, but has the ability see his peers through the eyes of an outsider. His powers of observation are especially felt in stories such as “Third Party” and the title story, “How it Ended.” The stage is set completely differently for each story — the former based around an artistic New Yorker’s break-up jaunt to Paris and the latter about a married couple’s ennui in the Virgin Islands — but the interior dialogue is just as jarring as that of Bright Lights, though not for its truncated narration, but for its absolute familiarity.

A picture emerges of what it is to be selfish, yearning, and unsure (human), in our more cautious, semi-Golden Age wedged between two catastrophes. And at only around 12 to 15 pages each, McInerney’s language is exact and colorful; his vignettes give the reader just enough to get hooked — and wanting more — of his compelling creations. A little like the drugs his characters so voraciously consume.

Jay McInerney will be reading from How It Ended at the Barnes & Noble Tribeca (97 Warren Street) tonight at 7 p.m.