From the writer whose first novel, Bright Lights, Big City, defined a generation comes a collection of twenty-six stories drawn from his nearly three-decade career. Whether set in New England, Los Angeles, New York, or the South, the stories unveil the manic flux of our society as they capture various stages of adulthood: a young man confronting the class system at a summer resort; a young woman holed up in a remote cabin while her boyfriend campaigns for the highest office; a couple whose experiments in sexuality cross every line; a doctor who treats convicts and is coming to terms with his own criminal past; a youthful socialite returning home to nurse her mother; a family celebrating the holidays while mired in loss; and more. A manifold exploration of delusion, experience, and transformation, these stories display McInerney in top form.
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JAY MCINERNEY is the author of seven novels and two collections of essays on wine. He is a regular contributor to New York magazine, Guardian Weekly (London), and Corriere della Sera. He lives in New York.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Madonna of Turkey Season
It came to seem like our own special Thanksgiving tradition-one of us inevitably behaving very badly. The role was passed around the table from year to year like some kind of ceremonial torch, or a seasonal virus: the weeping and gnashing of teeth, the breaking of glass, the hurling of accusations, the final nosedive into the mashed potatoes or the shag carpet. Sometimes it even fell to our guests-friends, girlfriends, wives-the disease apparently communicable. We were three boys who'd lost their mother-four if you counted Dad, five if you counted Brian's best friend, Foster Creel, who'd lost his own mother about the same time we did and always spent Thanksgiving with us-and for many years there had been no one to tell us not to pour that pivotal seventh drink, not to chew with our mouths open, not to say fuck at the dinner table.
We kept bringing other women to the table to try to fill the hole, but they were never able to impose peace for long. Sometimes they were catalysts, and occasionally they even initiated the hostilities-perhaps their way of trying to fit in. My father never brought another woman to the table, though many tried to invite themselves, and our young girlfriends remarked on how handsome he was and what a waste it was. “I had my great love, and how could I settle for anything less?” he'd say as he poured himself another Smirnoff and the neighbor widows and divorcées dashed themselves against the windowpanes like birds.
Sometimes, although not always, the mayhem boiled up again at Christmas, in the sacramental presence of yet another turkey carcass, with a new brother or guest in the role of incendiary device, though memories of the most recent Thanksgiving were often enough to spare us the spectacle for another eleven months. I suppose we all had a lot to be thankful for, socioeconomically speaking, but for some reason we chose to dwell instead on our grievances. How come you went to Aidan's high school play and not mine? How could you have fucked Karen Watley when you knew I was in love with her?
We would arrive Tuesday night from prep school or college, or on Wednesday night from New York, where we were working at a bank while writing a play, or from Vermont, where we were building a log cabin with our roommate from Middlebury before heading up to Stowe at first snow for a season of ski bumming. Dad would take the latter part of the week off, until he retired, which was when things really became dangerous. The riotous foliage that briefly enflamed the chaste New England hills was long gone, leaving the monochromatic landscape of winter: the gray stone walls of the early settlers, the silver trunks of the maples, the white columns of birch.
Manly hugs were exchanged at the kitchen door. Cocktails were offered and accepted. Girlfriends and roommates were introduced. The year of the big snow, footwear was scraped on the blade of the cast-iron boot cleaner outside the door. Dad was particularly pleased with this implement, and always pointed it out to guests, not because he was particularly fastidious about mud and snow, but because it seemed to signify all the supposed charm and tradition of old New England (as opposed to, say, its intolerance of immigrants and its burning of young girls at the stake), although he'd bought this particular boot scraper once upon a time at the local True Value hardware store. But somehow Dad had convinced himself that it had been planted here by the early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in between skirmishes with the Wampanoags and the Mohicans. He liked to think of himself as an old Yankee, despite the fact that when his grandfathers arrived in Boston, the windows were full of NO IRISH NEED APPLY signs and they weren't likely to be invited to scrape their boots at anybody's front door. A century and a half later, though, we lived in a big white house with green shutters, which Dad inevitably described as “Colonial,” though it was built in the 1920s to resemble something a hundred years older.
Most of the girls we brought-a cavalcade of blondes-were judged by their resemblance to our mother, except when it seemed, as was the case a couple of times with Brian, they'd been deliberately chosen for their controversial darkness. Each of us could see how his brother's girlfriend was a pale imitation of Mom and our own were one-offs who shared some of her best qualities. The girls, for their part, must have been a little daunted at first to discover the patterns of traits they'd cherished as unique. As different as we were, we were all recognizably alike, with the same unruly hair, the same heavy-browed, smiley eyes and all our invisible resemblances, born and bred. Brian, the eldest, kept things lively by bringing a different girl every year; we called him “the Kennedy of the family.” The rest of us took after Dad, who liked to say that Mom was his only true love. Mike had been with Jennifer since his freshman year at Colby, and Aidan met his future wife, Alana, before he was twenty. Actually, Brian showed up two years in a row with Janis, whom he eventually married, much to our and then his own chagrin. The second time, she threw the entire uncarved turkey at Brian's head, a scene that eventually showed up in his second play. Another year, he and Foster nearly came to blows at the table when it came out that they'd lately been sleeping with the same girl. It took two of us to restrain Brian.
Brian's personal life, with all its chaos, Sturm und Drang, was the workshop version of his professional life, a laboratory for drama. And of course he wrote about us. Mike said at the time that the phrase “thinly disguised” was too chubby by half to describe Brian's relation to his source material. His first play revolved around the death of a mother from cancer. There seemed to be a number of those that particular season, but his was the most successful. We all went down to the opening night at the New York Theatre Workshop. The play was directed by Foster, who'd been his best friend ever since Choate, and had gone with him to Yale Drama. We sat there, stunned in the aftermath, as the applause thundered around us. It was hard to know how to react. In the play, Brian seemed to be making a special claim for himself with regard to our mother, in that the character who was obviously him had been more loved and more devastated than the others.
Then there was the question of his portrayal of the rest of us. On the one hand, as brothers we wanted to say, Hey, that's not me, and on the other, But wait a minute; that is me. He'd put us in an untenable position. Brian was a great sophist, and if you complained about the parallels between his life and art, he would start declaiming about the autobiographical basis of Long Day's Journey into Night or point out that “your” character had gone to Deerfield, when you'd actually gone to Hotchkiss. And if you complained about inaccuracies-denied that you'd ever, for example, had carnal relations with the family dog-he would cite poetic license or remind you that you'd been banging on a moment before about resemblances and that this clearly demonstrated the fictionality of his masterpiece.
At first, it was hard to tell how Dad felt about it. He put on a brave face and went over to Phoebe's, the bar down the block, to celebrate with Brian and the cast. He seemed to be in shock. But later, in the cab back to the hotel, and in the bar there, he kept asking us, over and over again, some variant of the question “Was I such a bad father?” In truth, he didn't come off all that badly, but we all had a hard time not viewing the play as a flawed family memoir. He also cornered Foster, our unofficial fourth brother, whom for years Dad had consulted as a kind of emotional translator in his efforts to understand Brian.
“Every artist interprets the world through the prism of his own narcissism,”
Foster told him that night. “He doesn't think you're a bad father. He forgot about you the day he started writing the play. All the characters in the play, even the ones who look and sound like you, are Brian, or else they're foils for Brian.” I don't think my father knew whether to be reassured or worried by this. Of course, he'd long known Brian was massively self-absorbed, prone to exaggeration and outright mendacity. But he seemed pleased with the judgment, repeated to us all many times later, that Brian was an artist. At last, he seemed to feel, there was an explanation for his temperament, and his deviations from what my father considered proper behavior: the drugs, the senseless prevarications, the childhood interest in poetry. For Dad, Foster's assessment counted as much as subsequent accolades in the Times and elsewhere.
That year, Brian brought Cassie Haynes, the actress, who played his former girlfriend Rita Cosovich in the play, although of course he denied that the character was based on Rita, and we all wondered if Rita would, on balance, be more offended by the substance of her portrait or flattered by its appearance, Cassie being a babe of the first order. She caused a bit of a sensation around the neighborhood that Thanksgiving, husbands coming from three streets down to ask after the leaf blower they thought they might possibly have lent to Dad earlier in the fall. When we heard she was coming, we all thought, Great, just what we need, a prima donna actress, though we couldn't help liking her, and hoping she would come back during bathing suit season.
Brian's play gave us something to fight about at the Thanksgiving board for years to come, beginning that first November after the opening, when the wounds were still fresh. Mike, the middle brother, was the first to take up the cause after the cocktail hour had been prolonged due to some miscalculation about the turkey. Mike's fiancée, Jennifer, had volunteered to cook the bird that year, and while she would later become our chief and favorite cook, this was her first attempt at a turkey, and rather than relying on Mom's old copy of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, she'd insisted on adapting a chicken recipe from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. When Dad attempted to carve the turkey the first time, the legs were still pink and raw and the bird was slammed back in the oven, giving us all another jolly hour and a half to deplete the bar. We might have given Jennifer less grief if she hadn't initially tried to defend herself, insisting that the French preferred their birds rare and implying that a thoroughly cooked bird was unsophisticated. When we finally sat down to eat, Brian said grace without letting her off the hook: “Notre père, qui aime la volaille crue, que ton nom soit sanctifié-”
Mike interrupted him, asking how he'd like a well-done drumstick up the ass. Dad demanded a truce, and for several minutes peace prevailed, until Dad started to talk about Mom in that maudlin way of his, a recitation that always relied heavily on the concept of her sainthood. Usually we all collaborated in changing the subject and leading him out of this quagmire of grieving nostalgia, but now Mike wanted to open the subject for debate.
“She didn't deserve to suffer,” Dad was saying.
“Apparently, the person who suffered the most was Brian,” Mike said.
“At least that's the impression I got from the play. I mean, sure, Mom was dying of cancer and all, but I never realized it hurt Brian so much to administer her shots the one night that he actually managed to sit up with her. Maybe I'm a philistine, but it seemed to me like the point was the one who really suffered wasn't Mom, it was Brian.”
“Okay, okay,” Brian said. “I'm sorry I said grace in French.”
“That's not really the point,” Mike said.
“Oh, but I think it is.”
“I don't blame you for trying to change the subject, you self-centered prick. But you know what? We all grew up in the same house. And we all saw the play.”
“Now, boys,” Dad said.
“You, of all people, know what I'm talking about,” Mike said, pointing a fork at our father. “Let's be honest. You were freaked-out by the play.”
Dad didn't want to go down this road. “I had a few . . . concerns.”
“Don't pussy out, Dad. We've talked about this, for Christ's sake. Why are we all so worried about Brian's feelings? It's not like he lost any sleep worrying about ours.”
“Actually,” Cassie said, “I happen to know he was very worried about your feelings. I think Foster will agree with me.”
“It's not like he shows it,” Mike said.
“I think it's wonderful how women attribute lofty ideals and fine feelings to us,” Foster said. “But, I'm sorry, if Brian had spent much time worrying about your feelings, it wouldn't have been much of a fucking play.”
This quip might have defused the situation, but Mike, like a giant freighter loaded with grievances, was unable to change course. Brian parried his continuing assault with glib little irrelevancies until Mike eventually stormed out of the room, spilling red wine all over the Irish linen tablecloth, but the rest of us considered ourselves fortunate that it wasn't blood. Mike had the fiercest temper in the family, and he was three inches taller and thirty pounds heavier than his elder brother.
The whole exchange was pretty representative. While Brian had always charmed and finessed and fibbed his way through life, Mike had a fierce stubborn honesty and a big hardwood chip on his shoulder, which was in some measure a reflection of his belief that Brian had already claimed the upper bunk bed of life before he came along and had a chance to choose for himself. If Brian were assailing a castle, he would try to sneak in the back door by seducing the scullery maid; Mike would butt his head against the portcullis until it or he gave way. Mike's youthful transgressions weren't necessarily more numerous or egregious, but, unlike Brian, he was inevitably caught and held accountable, in part because he considered it dishonest to hide them. Brian never let the facts compromise his objective, and he seemed almost allergic to them. When he got caught with marijuana, he had an elaborate, if hackneyed, story about how he was holding it for a friend. But when Mike decided to grow it, he did so out in the open, planting rows between the corn and tomatoes in the vegetable garden, until someone finally told our mother, who'd been giving tours of the garden, the true identity of the mystery herb. Back then, none of us could have predicted that Mike would eventually be the one to follow our father to business school and General Electric, that he'd be diplomatic enough to negotiate the hazards of corporate culture. His reformation owed a lot to Jennifer, starting that first year at Colby. It took us a long time to learn to love her-my father was furious over her sophomore art-class critique of our parish church-but there was no denying her anodyne effect on Mike.
The year before Mike nearly throttled Brian, it was Aidan's turn. He was the baby of the family, which seemed to be his complaint-that we treated him as such. That we didn't give him enough respect. The specific catalyst, this Thanksgiving, was obscure. That he was drunk in the manner unique to inexperienced drinkers-he was a senior at Hotchkiss at the time-didn't especially help his case, and sensing this, he became even more frustrated and strident.
“Just because I'm younger . . . it doesn't give you guys the right to treat me like I'm a kid. Mom wouldn't have let you. If she was here, she'd tell you.”
“If she were here,” Brian said.
“That's exactly what I mean. Treating me like a friggin' baby.”
We all found it cute that even in his cups, Aidan had use...
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