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Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

Bright, Precious Days

Jay McInerney
Media of Bright, Precious Days


From Chapter 1

Once, not so very long ago, young men and women had come to the city because they loved books, because they wanted to write nov­els or short stories or even poems, or because they wanted to be associ­ated with the production and distribution of those artifacts and with the people who created them. For those who haunted suburban librar­ies and provincial bookstores, Manhattan was the shining island of letters. New York, New York: It was right there on the title pages—the place from which the books and magazines emanated, home of all the publishers, the address of The New Yorker and The Paris Review, where Hemingway had punched O'Hara and Ginsberg seduced Kerouac, Hell-man sued McCarthy and Mailer had punched everybody, where—or so they imagined—earnest editorial assistants and aspiring novelists smoked cigarettes in cafes while reciting Dylan Thomas, who'd taken his last breath in St. Vincent's Hospital after drinking seventeen whis­keys at the White Horse Tavern, which was still serving drinks to the tourists and the young litterateurs who flocked here to raise a glass to the memory of the Welsh bard. These dreamers were people of the book; they loved the sacred New York texts: The House of Mirth, Gatsby, Breakfast at Tiffany's et al., but also all the marginalia: the romance and the attendant mythology—the affairs and addictions, the feuds and fistfights. Like everyone else in their lousy high school, they'd read The Catcher in the Rye, but unlike everyone else they'd really felt it—it spoke to them in their own language—and they secretly conceived the ambi­tion to one day move to New York and write a novel called Where the Ducks Go in Winter or maybe just The Ducks in Winter.

Russell Calloway had been one of them, a suburban Michigander who had an epiphany after his ninth-grade teacher assigned Thom­as's "Fern Hill" in honors English, who subsequently vowed to devote his life to poetry until A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man changed his religion to fiction. Russell went east to Brown, determined to acquire the skills to write the great American novel, but after read­ing Ulysses—which seemed to render most of what came afterward anticlimactic—and comparing his own fledgling stories with those written by his Brown classmate Jeff Pierce, he decided he was a more plausible Maxwell Perkins than a Fitzgerald or Hemingway. After a postgraduate year at Oxford he moved to the city and eventually landed a coveted position opening mail and answering the phone for legendary editor Harold Stone, in his leisure hours prowling the used bookstores along Fourth Avenue in the Village, haunting the bars at the Lion's Head and Elaine's, catching glimpses of graying literary lions at the front tables. And if the realities of urban life and the pub­lishing business had sometimes bruised his romantic sensibilities, he never relinquished his vision of Manhattan as the mecca of American literature, or of himself as an acolyte, even a priest, of the written word. One delirious night a few months after he arrived in the city, he accom­panied an invited guest to a Paris Review party in George Plimpton's town house, where he shot pool with Mailer and fended off the lisp­ing advances of Truman Capote after snorting coke with him in the bathroom.