It takes some time to get through How It Ended, Jay McInerney’s retrospective look at his career in short fiction, which is hopefully by no means over. McInerney is a master of depicting human relationships, mostly in their decline. No, that’s being kind. How It Ended is a painful look into crumbling social connections. It’s a book not so much enjoyed as it is savored for its sadness and its wisdom, its toll on the reader. Read it slowly; take a story at a time. Too much is almost overwhelming. How It Ended is a powerhouse of personal drama that demands—and usurps—a reader’s full attention.
McInerney’s prose is simply perfect. Every sentence is composed and considered, and not a line is wasted. His matter-of-fact voice has off-putting tones, piquing the reader’s curiosity while warning him of the unrest that lies beneath the artifice of social surfaces. This graveness ties together dissonant characters and diverse plots into a fable about beginnings and endings. Everything that has a beginning has an end, and it’s up to us to be as graceful about it as possible.
His characters are bound by decisions made long ago; their stories take place in the endgames of relationships. They act as a painful reminder that decisions can never be unmade, and small consequences cascade into larger ones. All his characters share a longing to make more of themselves and an inability to escape the lives they have made. All that’s left is finding a way to cope with what is left of them, to collect the pieces they can salvage.
Their dilemmas range from the mundane to the bizarre. In “Smoke,” a husband and wife falling into a rut are torn apart by withdrawal symptoms from their mutual decision to quit smoking. Immediately following is “Invisible Fences,” a strange piece about a husband aroused by watching his wife have sex with other men, which we learn in a painful reveal is his way of coping with the visual, visceral horror of his wife’s earlier affair. McInerney’s characters are forced to suffer through choices they made long ago.
If there’s anything resembling a problem with How It Ended, it’s that there’s only one type of story here. It’s too much too take all at once (there have to be some relationships that work out, right?). But McInerney writes what he knows, and this is a book worth keeping and revisiting, a stern guide on how to live with others and bravely encounter the various endings that take us by surprise. And, perhaps needless to say, this book is a must for McInerney fans. Stories here—most previously published, some new—cover his career to date. The very first piece—”It’s Six A.M. Do You Know Where You Are?” was his first published story, as well as the inspiration for Bright Lights, Big City. How It Ended is an incredible retrospective on McInerney’s career.
To put this all more simply: How It Ended showcases a master who never seems to lose his craft. This is a book to read from forever.