Ron Charles reviews "Bright, Precious Days" by Jay McInerney, the same author who penned "Bright Lights, Big City." (Ron Charles/The Washington Post)

You can’t say he didn’t warn us. Jay McInerney’s new novel, “Bright, Precious Days,” is bright and precious.

It’s his third book about Russell and Corrine Calloway, the New York couple that makes their friends believe a good marriage is still possible. We first met these shiny lovers way back in 1992 in “Brightness Falls” and caught up with them again in 2006 in “The Good Life,” which, if nothing else, means their relationship has lasted longer than most real-life marriages.

(Knopf)

McInerney, now on his fourth wife, has spoken of Russell as his alter ego. Far from the cocaine-snorting fact checker of “Bright Lights, Big City,” Russell is the responsible co-owner of a boutique publishing house where he works as editor in chief, fulfilling his well-polished Maxwell Perkins fantasy. An attentive husband to Corrine and a good father to their children, he glides through New York’s financial and cultural empyrean in a state of blissful satisfaction. “He never relinquished his vision of Manhattan as the mecca of American literature,” McInerney writes, “or of himself as an acolyte, even a priest, of the written word.”

Alter ego — or just ego?

Russell is courted by gorgeous young women willing to trade sexual favors for snippets of literary history. The press compares Russell and his wife to Gerald and Sara Murphy, the hosts of the Lost Generation. As the novel opens, Russell has discovered a rough-hewn Tennessee genius destined to win the National Book Award. When Russell reads another proposal he loves, he grabs it for $1 million. And when he spots a nasty reviewer at his Hamptons garden party, he exiles the intruder with a humiliating rebuke.

Grind up these chapters, lace them with tweed, and English majors would inject this paste right into their veins. Maybe fiction readers are predetermined to find “the ordeal of literary celebrity” alluring, but I’m skeptical that such troubles reverberate beyond several particular blocks of Manhattan. Halfway through the novel, the first baleful crisis involves the possibility that Russell’s editorial marks on a manuscript might be made public, which would reveal that he has — what? — embezzled millions? murdered a child? no . . . only that he has made a lot of editorial changes to a collection of short stories that his house recently published.

Holy red pencil, Batman!

McInerney has long been a distinctly New York novelist, but “Bright, Precious Days” looks downright myopic in its focus on the rarefied concerns of a certain class of New Yorkers, their aspirations, their prep schools, their struggles to attend $1,000-a-plate charity banquets. The novel doubles as a catalogue of fine clothes, wines and paintings, and we’re asked to know and care a lot about the respective reputations and prices of real estate in various boroughs as the market skyrockets out of reach. In one of the story’s most tragic — and apparently unironic — moments, Russell laments that he can’t even buy a $6 million house. (This humiliation adds “to his sense that the world as he knew it was crumbling around him.”) Corrine, meanwhile, may work in a food pantry, but she and McInerney are clearly slumming it; those smelly homeless folks remain mercifully out of focus while we hear gossip about pre-nups and Cialis.

Still, as a social satirist, McInerney can be so spot-on that you want to call your housekeeper upstairs and read her some of the funny bits. Typical of his genius is a children’s party at “a Beaux Arts limestone edifice designed by McKim, Mead & White just a door in from Fifth Avenue and the park.” Along with the “much-photographed first and second wives of a hedge fund manager” is a mother “who resembled a bejeweled Giacometti in a canary yellow dress” standing “beside an actual Brancusi — a shiny marble Bird in Space.” The highlight of the party is the arrival of a lion-tiger crossbreed that delights the kiddies and mauls a jogger.

Author Jay McInerney (Michael Lionstar)

In sentences frequently as smart and elegant as Michael Cunningham’s, McInerney captures the city in those supernova years before the Great Recession. All the material improvements — the drop in crime, the rise in employment, the rehabilitation of old neighborhoods — has come, Russell fears, at the expense of the city’s soul and his cherished place in it. Now in his 50s, he finds his thoughts haunted by subterranean dreads, even his sexual desires tainted with intimations of death. The 1980s, that decade of discovery and decadence, still looms over him, growing more mythological with each passing year.

But despite the dazzlingly smart style of McInerney’s prose, there’s a wavering tone in this novel, a sense that the author is still lusting after the very things he’s mocking, such as a “black American Express Centurion card, the one reserved for cardholders who spent more than a million a year.” At what point has an author spent so long parodying a tiny subset of the world — a subset he also happens to inhabit — that he loses his critical distance? When, in other words, does a novelist slip from social satire to consumer porn?

“The proximity to so much wealth could be infectious,” McInerney says about the Calloways’ desire for nice things, but that could also explain the novel’s feverish passages, such as the whole tawdry subplot about Corrine’s fantasy affair with a handsome billionaire pilot she met in the previous novel. (There’s a weird Stephenie Meyer —> E.L. James —> James McInerney family tree here that I don’t even want to think about.)

“You know, I’m used to getting what I want,” this well-endowed philanthropist tells Corrine.

“Does that arrogant rich-guy line work on other girls?” she asks.

“‘I’m sorry. . . . Sometimes I forget you’re not like anyone else.”

That might work,” she says, slipping out of her jeans.

How a novel of such narrative sophistication can be stained by such wincingly bad dialogue is one of the questions I’d love to ask a successful editor like Russell.

After all, when he asks Corrine, “Sweetheart, what’s the matter?” she replies, “Oh, Russell, is this it? Roses once a year. . . . We’re fifty years old. Where’s the romance? Whatever happened to the romance?”

Please, please — let’s just be quiet for a while and enjoy the bright lights.

Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.

Bright, Precious Days

By Jay McInerney

Knopf. 397 pp. $27.95