One night in the early 1980s, Jay McInerney, then a twenty-something wannabe writer, stumbled home after an epic evening of partying and heard an insistent voice in his head saying, “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.” He dashed off a quick paragraph about the night he’d just spent at a club talking with a girl with a shaved head and wishing he could get his hands on some more “Bolivian Marching Powder.” A short time later, editor George Plimpton called him to say he’d liked a story McInerney had sent to The Paris Review and hoped McInerney had something else he might want to submit. Rooting through his old notebooks, McInerney found the scrawled paragraph about his night at the club, and in the space of a few hours, wrote an entire story in that angry, ironical, self-disgusted second-person voice.
Plimpton published the story, “It’s Six A.M., Do You Know Where You Are?” in The Paris Review, and in 1984, with the help of his best friend from college, Random House editor Gary Fisketjon, McInerney turned it into a 182-page novel, Bright Lights, Big City, which became an instant bestseller, making McInerney at once among the most popular and most vilified writers in America. Three years later, the Village Voice labeled McInerney, along with Bret Easton Ellis and Tama Janowitz, as part of the Literary Brat Pack, setting off an orgy of media hype that continues to dog these authors to this day.
Even now, as the novel marks its 30th anniversary, it is nearly impossible to separate one’s opinion of Bright Lights from one’s opinion of its author. This is in no small part McInerney’s fault. At the height of his fame, he partied hard and publicly; he dated models, said inane things in magazine profiles, and earned a rightful place in untold numbers of nasty gossip columns. He has married four times and written six more novels, many of them bad, one or two of them truly execrable. In latter years, McInerney has become almost a parody of his younger self: a red-faced dandy with presidential hair, married to a Hearst heiress, who writes wine columns for the Wall Street Journal.
But forget all that. Forget, too, the unwatchable screen version of Bright Lights starring a painfully miscast Michael J. Fox. Forget the later books. Forget the careers of McInerney’s fellow Brat Packers, none of whom has written a good novel in the last twenty years. Set all of that aside, and just read the book. If you do, you may well find that, pried loose from the perpetual noise machine that surrounds its author and the lore of its publication, Bright Lights, Big City appears, hidden in plain sight, as one of the great undiscovered gems of post-World War II American literature.
Put simply, Bright Lights, Big City is the story of a young, handsome man-child very much like Jay McInerney, who works in the Department of Factual Verification of a famous magazine very much like The New Yorker. Abandoned by his fashion-model wife, Amanda, and mourning a private sorrow, the novel’s narrator snorts enough cocaine to float a South American junta, gets fired from the famous magazine, and nearly has his hand bitten off by enraged ferret. In the end, he reunites with his family, meets a nice Princeton girl with freckles, and in a direct steal from the short story “A Small Good Thing” by McInerney’s mentor Raymond Carver, he finishes the book gorging on fresh bread, resolving “to learn everything all over again.”
But, really, nothing about Bright Lights, Big City is as simple as it seems. Start with those autobiographical details. McInerney was in fact fired from a job as a fact-checker at the New Yorker. He had also been briefly married to a fashion model, Linda Rossiter, before he met a fresh-faced graduate student named Merry Reymond, to whom he dedicated the book. He was also, by his own admission, partying pretty hard and putting a good deal of Bolivia’s finest up his nose.
But it’s a hall of mirrors, these connections between the novel’s protagonist and its author, making it hard to pass judgment on the fictional character without running headlong into his real-life doppelgänger, who has spent the last thirty years looking more fashion-plate-ish and sounding more pompously self-involved than any ordinary reader can be expected to endure. Perusing three decades of magazine-profile McInerniana, one longs to suggest he please stop with the preciously self-conscious comparisons to F. Scott Fitzgerald. One yearns to slip him a note suggesting he try getting his picture taken in something other than a black turtleneck or J. Press sport coat. He might also try being linked to a woman who is neither a model nor a scion to a great newspaper fortune. And would it kill him to go to Supercuts? One $19.95 haircut would do wonders for his literary reputation.
The problem is, of course, that, with some crucial elisions and exaggerations for effect, the unnamed protagonist of Bright Lights, Big City is Jay McInerney, and to fully appreciate his book, we have to see past that to the boldness and prescience of his literary achievement. We live in an age of memoir. Today, every ambitious young person with a problem and a prose style is writing a memoir of his or her misspent youth to the bestseller list, and it isn’t going out on much of a limb to suggest that if McInerney had had that cocaine-fueled moment of clarity today, he would have written a bestselling addiction memoir rather than a bestselling literary novel. In fact, it isn’t much of a stretch to suggest that if the other Brat Packers were starting out today they would be writing memoir rather than fiction – Janowitz about her freaky Lower East Side friends, Ellis about his monstrously vacuous early years in L.A. This may help answer the perennial question: “Whatever happened to the 1980s Literary Brat Pack?” What happened to them is what eventually happens to all young memoirists: they ran out of source material.
But the secret to Bright Lights, Big City, what makes it feel so fresh thirty years later, is that it’s not a memoir. In 1984, the addiction memoir didn’t exist as a popular form the way it does today, so McInerney drew his stylistic guidance from an older tradition of voice-driven American literature that runs through J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The voice at the center of Bright Lights may be spoiled and petulant, but it also is unmistakably American: fatally romantic, distrustful of authority, and democratic to a fault, even as it sounds its barbaric yawp over the rooftop parties of the world.
It may sound strange to call McInerney’s narrator, so famously obsessed with status and designer goods, democratic, but one of the things that emerges from a rereading of Bright Lights is how deeply middle American his voice sounds. For all his velvet-rope hopping and faux French phrases, deep down the narrator is just a wide-eyed kid gawking at the passing parade of humanity called New York City, and one of the pleasures of the book is how effortlessly it allows you to gawk along with him.
The New York of Bright Lights, Big City is a city poised on the knife-edge of change. For decades, upwardly mobile young white people like McInerney’s narrator had been fleeing to the suburbs, where John Updike’s and John Cheever’s protagonists lived, leaving the five boroughs a cauldron of poverty, crime, and ethnic unrest. But in the years after the city nearly went bankrupt in the 1970s, the poles abruptly reversed. Knowledge industries like banking, media, and fashion design, which had stayed in New York even as its manufacturing base evaporated, hit their stride again, and upwardly mobile young white people – the adventurous ones, anyway – started beating a track back to the city, snapping up cheap apartments in formerly industrial and working-class neighborhoods like SoHo and the West Village.
Bright Lights, Big City puts you at the heart of this historic shift, riding the subways where Hasidic Jews – “gnomes in black with briefcases full of diamonds” – study scripture beside Rastafarians reeking “of sweat and reefer”; and walking the streets where vendors sell everything from drugs and fake watches to real, live wild ferrets. The daily clash between this rougher, more tribal New York and the new college-educated elite flooding the city gives the novel its vivid backdrop and hastens the narrator toward his drug-fueled self-immolation.
McInerney reports it all with great humor and a raptor’s eye for squirming detail, but it’s the second-person voice that makes it lasting literature. By telling his own story through a fictional avatar called “you,” McInerney manages the trick of creating three characters from one protagonist. On the one hand, the character is Jay McInerney, a real person who experienced misadventures very similar to those described in the book and who thus possesses the credibility granted to any memoirist. At the same time, he is a fictional construct for whom all the traditional rules of narrative apply: we can laugh at his foibles and voyeuristically feel his pain, all the while knowing he isn’t real.
But finally – this is the magic part – he is literally “you,” each and every one of McInerney’s readers, the thousands of suburban-bred Americans who yearned to be this essentially decent, right-thinking guy who is also a wildly self-destructive drug addict. This was the substance of McInerney’s flash of insight when he turned that scrawled paragraph into a work of fiction: that thousands of readers secretly wanted to be like him. So he let them. In his book, you marry a fashion model. You work at The New Yorker and stay out partying every night till dawn. You own an Aston-Martin sports car that a friend has smashed up and know the waitress by name at the Lion’s Head bar. And when you let it all slip through your fingers, thanks to your unquenchable thirst for the edge, you are saved by the love of a good woman, who is prettier than the fashion model and a doctoral student at Princeton.
The second-person voice performed one last magic act on McInerney himself: it opened him up. Throughout his career, in good books and bad, McInerney’s subject has been beauty and what it masks. Whether he’s writing about socialites or fashion models, writers or investment bankers, the engine of the plot is a dazzling surface that hides an ugly truth. Some books are better than others. His 1992 novel Brightness Falls is a smart, sharply observed take on the go-go Eighties. The Last of the Savages, published in 1997 and set in part in the American South, occasionally manages to rise above McInerney’s general cluelessness about the American South to deliver some moving scenes.
More often than not, though, McInerney’s later novels fail because he is too in love with the surfaces in his characters. Only in Bright Lights, Big City does McInerney truly peel back the mask. What he reveals is not, in the great scheme of things, so awful. The novel’s hero isn’t a sadistic mass murderer like Patrick Bateman from Ellis’s American Psycho. He is merely needy and socially insecure. For this man, the primal scene isn’t catching his parents having sex, but “a ring of schoolchildren, like Indians surrounding a wagon train, laughing with malice, pointing their vicious little fingers to insist on your otherness.” He has since learned the art of appearing to belong, but he has “never quite lost the fear that you eventually would be discovered a fraud, an imposter in the social circle.”
For a man obsessed with belonging – whose girlfriend must always be the prettiest in the room, who must always know the name of the waitress at the Lion’s Head – this is as ugly a truth as it is possible for him to admit. Indeed, his hunger to belong, to have the sexiest wife, the most prestigious job, the best vial of blow south of Fourteenth Street, nearly kills him. In the end, he is saved, but thirty years later, we know how that story turned out. He married the girl from Princeton – actually, she was teaching at Syracuse – and then they divorced, and two wives later, he is the red-faced man in a J. Press sport coat, condemned in every interview to talk about his first, best work.