Book review: The Last Bachelor, by Jay McInerney

Bloomsbury, £12.99Review: John Freeman

HE HAS been a roguish night crawler, a faithful chronicler of the preppy party class and their vodka and tonic-fuelled lurch through life, a wry-tongued gourmand and a gouged-eye witness to the emotional upheaval of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. With such a contemporary, detail-fuelled fascination with the social world of his New York, Jay McInerney hardly feels like the type of writer to gravitate to the tidier, tinier court of the short story.

So it's a surprise to discover in The Last Bachelor, his second collection, that the author of Bright Lights, Big City has maintained more than a passing interest in the short form. McInerney miniaturises drama without downsizing his usual themes – money, marriage and the social jostling involved in both. Each story begins and ends with a whiff of wistfulness and weary supplication before the chaos unleashed when ambition and love collide.

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None of the characters in The Last Bachelor feel particularly well suited to marriage, and that reluctance leads to unusual circumstances. In 'Sleeping with Pigs', an inveterate New York playboy marries into a storied clan of Southerners and before long finds himself ensconced in a sprawling Southern manse for six months out of the year, sharing a bed with his wife and their pet pig. "Over time," he says, "almost anything can come to seem normal in the course of a marriage."

Being a bemused anthropologist of coupling has benefits for a storyteller: you can get a reader's attention. 'Invisible Fences', a story about the long half-life of infidelity, begins as its narrator returns home to find his wife performing oral sex on a stranger. 'Summary Judgment' also backs into his tale through the mouth of its female protagonist – in this case, a thrice-married and divorced player of the high-stakes billionaire bachelor pool within New York's philanthropic circles.

The old Wasp world of wealth that Louis Auchinloss wrote about in nearly 100 books has yet to spawn another native son; the new money being minted – and lost – around America moves so fast even the journalists lose its scent. One has to give credit to McInerney for looking past the brand names and Danielle Steele-type getaways to explore the inner lives of characters that move through that universe and are warped by its conventions.

Still, it's hard not to wish McInerney relied less upon the obvious social markers to place his reader in this realm. 'Madonna of Turkey Season', a rather aborted tale of brothers competing to bring home the loveliest holiday guest, is littered with too many towns and prep school names, details which will be lost on British readers and, ultimately, to time.

When McInerney decides to penetrate a character's interior life he can do it almost effortlessly. And he is most successful here when writing about women. 'Penelope On The Pond' resurrects Alison Poole, the heroine of The Story Of My Life, for a present-day tale about her romance with a married US senator. It's not clear until the story's sad climax how much she has ignored the coming demise of their affair.

McInerney's characters are engaging because they are continually falling into a trap that even their wealth cannot protect them from: they cannot tell the difference between living fully, and living without limits. "I think life is best viewed as a series of improvisations," says one of them. As anyone who has been married will tell you, this works for a while, until it doesn't. Children arrive, planned or unplanned. Parents and loved ones die before their time.

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In the collection's terrific title piece, an ageing bachelor hits the end of his run of womanising and decides to get married. The night before his wedding, however, he phones in one last rendezvous. And so the narrator – that woman who gets the call – watches on with "morbid fascination" as the fellow tries to fool himself into believing he lives outside of the social order that made him. He doesn't – but as these tales remind, that social order has a safety net of sorts, one that has made divorce lawyers all around New York extremely wealthy.