In addition to his new fantastic novel, The Good Life, Jay McInerney’s other work occupies a prominent place on my shelf. Preparing for the release of the new novel, I was re-reading some of older works and found myself getting sucked in, drawn in, and what began as a casual glance turned into a three or four hour reading session. So, in honor of the damage these books did to my aching eyes the last few nights, here’s a roundup of McInerney’s body of work.
Bright Lights, Big City
This is the one that started it all. Published in 1984, this book established the template for the youthful partying of the 80’s excess. I give this book to people today and they complain that the decadence, the sleeping late and missing work, the Odeon, the Palladium, and the Bolivian marching powder are all too cliche. What new readers don’t realize is that McInerney, with some help from Bret Easton Ellis and others, created that cliche.
The novel’s famous opening immediately introduces one of the most famous characteristics of this book.
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Power. Then again, it might not. A small voice inside you insists that this epidemic lack of clarity is a result of too much of that already.
It has often been said that when Johnny Cash covered Trent Reznor’s song Hurt he took it away and completely made it his own. Reznor can no longer lay claim to that tune and no one in the future can either. I’m not trying to compare McInerney to the Man in Black, but I gotta warn you against trying to use the second person perspective in your work. With this debut novel, McInerney took that device, stamped it with his identity and laid claim to it forever. No one else is going to be able to write in this perspective for a long time.
Bright Lights, Big City also contains one of my favorite lines in contemporary literature. The narrator struggles to deal with being dumped by his girlfriend. Best pal and legendary partier Tad Allagash manages to complain about the dearth of available cocaine and his friend’s housekeeping skills in one sentence. Then he follows up with the statement, “did you know that ninety percent of your average household dust is composed of human epidermal matter? That’s skin, to you.” The narrator considers this fact. “Perhaps this explains your sense of Amanda’s omnipresence,” he ponders. “She has left her skin behind.”
One final note about Bright Lights, Big City… I just noticed, looking at the book closely for the first time in a long time, that the cover illustration features the Twin Towers on it. An icon, or the remains, that will play a key role in the cover design of McInerney’s latest novel.
Published in 1985, this second novel is a distinct departure from most of McInerney’s work. His writing tends to almost always be set in New York City, with a bit of the South also featured. But in Ransom, he transports his readers to Kyoto, Japan, circa 1977. Ransom teaches English to ambitious businessmen and hangs out with fellow expatriates at Buffalo Rome, a blues dive that serves a taste of home to the American drifters floating through Asia after the Vietnam war.
Story of My Life
Long before there was a chick-lit genre, a college girlfriend of mine stole this novel from my shelf and retreated to the house she shared with four friends. They opened several bottles of wine, sat on the porch on a cool night, and my girlfriend read this book out loud to her pals, cackling with laughter, as their howls pierced the Oxford, MS night air. Alison Poole’s adventures, as she searches for love, maturity, and the answer to the three greatest lies, are hilarious. This is another one that might seem a little dated to new readers because the world-weary, decadent young person has been overdone quite a bit. But when McInerney created his characters, it was still fresh and daring. And the social satire and humor remains as effective today as it was in the eighties.
For you Bret Easton Ellis fans, it’s worth noting that Alison appears in a couple of his works. I’ll leave the mystery to you to discover but I will give you one hint. In one of the instances that Ellis appropriated Alison, the characters are at a Kentucky Derby party but mint juleps and betting tickets are ignored in favor of wire, duct tape, and rubber gloves.
McInerney’s masterpiece. Time will tell about the impressive The Good Life, but for the time being, this 1992 novel is the undisputed king. Even McInerney himself seems to think so. When Vanity Fair asked him to name his greatest achievement, he recalled this novel.
There are a couple of books that seem to just multiply on my shelves. Some Larry Brown, John O’Brien’s Leaving Las Vegas, a few Barry Hannah, a bunch of Fitzgerald. You know, the desert island books. I’ll be in some random city, traveling for work, living in hotel rooms, and I’ll get an undeniable urge to re-read one of these favorites so I rush out to the bookstore before it closes to buy yet another copy. Brightness Falls is one of those multiple-copy-books.
There was a time when McInerney was still labeled with the sneering Brat Pack label. And after this novel came out, it was amazing how many critically acclaimed writers told me, in hushed tones, that they thought this was one of the best novels of the decade.
I wholeheartedly agree. Even writing about this book now makes me want to log-off, lean back, and crack it open yet once more. Read this one with an open mind and ignore the name of the author and the misconceptions about his life and work and friends. You’ll be amazed.
The Last of the Savages
Quite honestly, this is my least favorite McInerney book. I need to re-read it because I remember almost nothing about the 1996 novel except for the memory of thinking it unfocused and ragged. I shouldn’t be so critical of it without refreshing my memory about the novel, but it’s the only McInerney book that I haven’t had any desire to revisit.
For years, I read Jay McInerney’s short stories published in some of the most prestigious of slicks. He used to appear on a pretty regular basis in The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Granta, The New Yorker, and Playboy. So I was thrilled when this collection of short stories was released in 1998. I had read most of the stories in their respective magazines, but it was nice to have everything collected together in one text. How It Ended and Smoke are my favorites but all the stories are worthwhile.
Bacchus and Me
I must admit that this 2000 nonfiction release actually isn’t sitting on my bookshelf. My well-documented affair with the demon Mt. Dew doesn’t allow me to partake of the vine. But I’ve heard plenty of rave reviews from grapely-inclined friends about this book so I thought I would include it in this roundup. They all tell me it’s well-written, entertaining, and engaging.
I recently dined with these wine fanatics. We met at a BYOB restaurant and these folks strolled in with what appeared to be map cases, or tubes protecting ancient Egyptian scrolls, slung over their shoulder. Turns out it was their wine, better presented in expensive, sturdy leather than a cheap paper sack. These folks have wine cases in the kitchen, cellars in the basement, and they speculate on wine futures the way most of us predict Google stock. So I trust their judgment on this one.
Meanwhile, I gotta get started on my ode to Mt. Dew. Or maybe a memoir about breaking that torturous cycle of addiction.