Hard to care about

<strong>The Last Bachelor</strong>

Jay McInerney <em>Bloomsbury, 216pp, £12.99</em>

I'm cutting my own throat here, but do you ­really want to spend your valuable time reading a review of a book by Jay McInerney? Back in the Eighties, even as late as the early Nineties, the frequent comparisons with Scott Fitzgerald didn't sound altogether imbecile - at the very least, Bright Lights, Big City found an individual tone of voice, with its second-person present-tense narration, and some smart lines ("Bolivian marching powder" as a circumlocution for ­cocaine being the one that stuck); and its ­narrative of loss - lost love, lost illusions, lost youth, lost cash - neatly caught an undercurrent of the zeitgeist. If you were interested in contemporary fiction, he was somebody you needed to know about.

Twenty-five years on, though, I wonder whether a more apt comparison might be not with Fitzgerald but with another chronicler of the marital difficulties of the good-looking, well-heeled classes. Reading McInerney can be enjoyable in much the same fluffy, disposable way as reading Jilly Cooper. The difference is that where a Cooper romance always curves upwards, from mutual antagonism to true love, with a happy ending involving lots of yummy orgasms, McInerney's trajectory is determinedly downwards: his protagonists start in a mist of romance, but then disillusionment gleams through; the sex may still be hot, but then there's that deflated, empty feeling to cope with: "Afterwards, she wrapped herself in the bedspread and walked out to the deck. The sky had turned grey in the east and the dark surface of ocean was stippled with silver sunlight. The coke was wearing off, and her eyeballs felt as if they were being pricked with tiny needles. She hated herself."

That is a paragraph from the end of the title story of this volume, about a woman persuading her ex, an internationally renowned swinger, to fuck her one last time before he finally marries someone else. Like so much of McInerney, the sentences are nicely put together, but still, the only thing that makes it remotely individual is a detail about cocaine use. Do we still need to know?

For those who want McInerney to stay just the way he used to be, The Last Bachelor will be highly satisfactory. Several of the dozen stories collected here feature the same types he's always written about (Irish-American lapsed Catholic writer types, who invariably fall for tall, blonde southern Wasp types); some even feature the same characters - "The March", set during the anti-war march of 15 February 2003, reintroduces Corrine, half of the married couple in Brightness Falls (1992) and The Good Life (2006); "Penelope on the Pond" brings back Alison Poole, the inarticulately bereft narrator of Story of My Life (1988), now dodging reporters for fear of damaging her married politician boyfriend's electoral chances. This last is, for once, topical: Alison was avowedly based on an ex-girlfriend of McInerney's, Lisa Druck, aka Rielle Hunter, whose affair with the Democrat Senator John Edwards did ­indeed help to sink his presidential campaign last year.

But even McInerney's committed fans, if there are such people, must be wondering by now when he is going to grow up. True, his characters have got older, and accumulated some of the trappings of age - spouses, children, careers, waistlines; but they haven't matured even a little bit. Few of McInerney's people settle into ­marriage, learn to make compromises and resist temptations: they shag recklessly, they snort coke, they administer blow-jobs in public places, and when their relationships are wrecked they loathe themselves, though possibly not as much as the reader does.

The problem is partly a detachment from ordinary life - money and success rarely seem to be problems for McInerney's people - but more a lack of variety. By my count, eight of the stories here are about adultery or its consequences. In the opening story, "Sleeping with Pigs", a wife punishes her husband for his transgressions by inviting her pet potbellied pig into their bed; in "I Love You, Honey", a pregnant wife punishes her husband by having an abortion, twice; in "Putting Daisy Down", a pregnant wife punishes her husband by demanding he have his beloved cat put down (he gets his own back by sleeping with the veterinary nurse).

Some of the stories have something different: "Summary Judgement" has a characterised mercenary Eurotrash bitch whose scheme to land another rich American husband ends; but all the characters are cartoonishly drawn, and the twist in the tail is limp. The narrator of "The Waiter" arrives at this clunking insight: "I realised something that I'd only intuited up to that point, that there is a class system in America, even if some of us bottom-dwellers didn't realise it" (Pulp's song "Common People" does sex and class far more wittily, and has a good tune). There is not one story, barely a sentence in this volume, that would make you think McInerney is someone you need to know about. Now we can all get on with something more useful.

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Interview: Alistair Darling