The Power of Oomph
Jay McInerney's true claim to fame isn't what you think.
Some wines are oaky, some cough syrups mediciney; Jay McInerney's writing is zeitgeisty. "He laid out four identical lines with his Soho House membership card ..." begins a sentence that brought me up most short from his How It Ended: New and Collected Stories. This from the man recently compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald by the editor—a critic I otherwise revere—of the New York Times Book Review? Fitzgerald is a glory of the English language; McInerney is the John Marquand for a new American ruling class. His stories are populated by stockjobbers, star litigators, and the floating detritus of showbiz and the international rich—adepts in the competition that is a free agent society. They sense they are the victors and wear their sense of victory like an Elizabethan ruff. But the perimeter of the winner's circle is never fully secure. They long for what Marquand, the New England WASP, found confining; a small world, with its clubbiness and intimacy, to assert itself, finally, against the heartlessness and anonymity of the new power elitism. And it never does.
There are superb examples of the form here. "Smoke," the story of a young couple's disintegrating commitment, is a masterpiece of indirection and concision. AndMcInerney is best when he is narrow; outside the precincts of the well-envied he loses his bearings altogether. ("For five years she and your great-great-granddaddy Isaac had to live over a dry goods store on Broadway while the Yankee officers slept in her bed and spit tobacco juice on her rugs. She died of a broken heart in those rooms over the dry-goods store.")
In his finest stories, McInerney's characters try to, but ultimately cannot, take oneanother's measure. Strangers suddenly become intimates. Intimates suddenly become strangers. In "The Queen and I," a trannie prostitute almost picks up her own father. In "The March," a protester almost gets billy-clubbed by a cop she once fed at a soup kitchen in the aftermath of 9/11. Visiting his ex-wife at a chichi rehab clinic, a well-known actor tries dialing his own dealer, only to discover he is checked in at the facility himself. "The problem with America," says Cara, a product of "boarding school, country clubs, and European vacations," is "there is no context."
This raises the question: How to place Jay McInerney? What context does he deserve? McInerney has been a tireless campaigner on his own behalf. The handsome gaze fixes, the mouth opens, and out trots F.R. Leavis, disguised as Eeyore. "I suppose an unsympathetic critic," he once told an interviewer, "might say that my ostensible critique of the manners of my age is overwhelmed by participation in that culture." (No need to suppose.) "We live in shitty, depraved and complacent times," he wrote in Esquire in 1989 in an infamous piece defending himself against his critics. He understands the stakes are not small. If McInerney is simply part of the zeitgeist, then he is a party to a collective loss of social memory that is inimical to the literary canon into which he eagerly seeks admittance. (At the table of posterity, it's better to be seated next to Fitzgerald than Brett Easton Ellis.) To deserve the company of his heroic predecessors, he believes he must position himself as a cold-eyed chronicler—and not merely a symptom—of theseshitty times.
The origins of the insecurity aren't difficult to trace. McInerney's first book, Bright Lights, Big City, was published 25 years ago. It appeared as part of a uniform trade-paperback edition—as a "Vintage Contemporary." Everyone is now familiar with the imprint; it is as ubiquitous as the Ikea shelving that typically houses it. Against a white background, the author's name sits suspended in the upper right hand corner, embedded in a rectangle of color. A grid of black dots connects a suggestive illustration to the title, then wraps around the spine, drawing the eye to the blurbs on the back. Raymond Carver's Cathedral, Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes, Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road—the house specialty is the not-so-young-adult near-classic. It was invented by Gary Fisketjon, a (quite young) editor at Random House, who wanted to introduce small-press writers he had admired as a reviewer for the Village Voice to a larger audience. Instead of sending a new work of fiction to market as an orphan, Fisketjon included it within a family of titles, all cheaply priced, all sharing a graphic design vaguely reminiscent of rock-era album art.
"Vintage Contemporary," you'll notice, is an oxymoron. Older authors were called on to supply prestige; younger authors, trendiness and commercial oomph. Random House had merged with Knopf in 1960, and the vaults were filled with potential hardback reprints. The question remained: Where to find the oomph? Fisketjon turned to his college roommate, whose first short story, a brief and intriguingly second-person account of a night out clubbing, had recently appeared in the Paris Review. Fisketjon convinced Jay McInerney to publish his first novel as a paperback, and in return the imprint got all the oomph it could have hoped for. (By 1988, Bright Lights, Big City had sold 500,000 copies; the figure is now well north of 1 million.) For McInerney, the blessing has been mixed. For all the supposedly reciprocal privileges of appearing alongside Raymond Carver (whose Cathedral appeared the same year), the book has never fully cast off the suspicions of its first unsympathetic critics, who taunted it with "Yuppieback" and "McWriting."
Bright Lights, Big City tells the story of a fact checker at a magazine that is, in every respect but name, The New Yorker. He has been abandoned by his fashion-model wife. By day, he makes a travesty of his job title; by night, he huffs cocaine ("Bolivian Marching Powder") at downtown clubs, in the company of a wholesomely depraved Peter Pan figure named Tad Allegash, who is purportedly based on Fisketjohn. The novel is justly famous for its use of the second person—of You instead of I. Some readers find the device gimmicky, even grating; but it absolutely makes the book. Where I acts as an integrating force in a typical narrative, You has a splitting effect. "You" is clearly the narrator—we are reading his own story—but it is also that part of the narrator that remains coldly dissociated from his own debauchery. You is a richly ambiguous style of address to begin with. It is admonitory, accusatory, commanding. It can be singular or plural. In "You," McInerney knew he was addressing in aggregate a new creature, the yuppie. (Zeitgeisty!) It was also a dispatch from a future self, from an author who, recollecting in tranquility, cannot quite believe the degree of his own former self-abandonment.
You is caught between a world of clubs, drugs, and fashion, which You recognizes as an active emptying out of aesthetic standards, and his magazine, which, in upholding such standards, has become a crypt for the over-finical—a place where young fogies go to never die. He knows his avenue out is to write. But writing is out of the question:
You wanted to skip over the dull grind of actual creation. After a hard day of work on other people's manuscripts—knowing in your heart that you could do better—the last thing you wanted to do was to go home and write. You wanted to go out. Amanda was the fashion model and you worked for the famous magazine. People were happy to meet you and to invite you to their parties.
Writing is a grind. Why bother when the party people are happy to accept its token—your menial daytime presence at a "famous magazine"? Why sit alone and "commit literature" (You's rich phrase) when you can exit your front door and, catching the comet by the tail, ram a little stardust up your nose? Bright Lights, Big City would be an inane document if it weren't for its terrifically finely drawn lines. (That Soho House card?) The New Yorker set pieces are witty, the portrait of a city beginning to lease its soul to the New York Post are canny, and, most of all, the book delivers on a beautiful surprise: It is a grief memoir. We discover, in the end, that being awake all night, administering drugs, and lamenting the come-on of a beloved woman—none of these are what we were led to believe they were.
You wasn't a twerp trying to have it both ways. He didn't sea and ski with the beautiful people and then, to win over the Book Review, claim it was for research purposes only. You was a personality split along lines of genuine confusion. Which impulse to obey? To push ahead, into something synthetic and disposable and therefore thrilling in its power to reject the past? Toward Tad Alleghash, and into childhoodlessness personified? Or to reach back, to childhood, to the comforts, if not the prerogatives, of a stable, affluent, largely white, midcentury middle class? (You describes his mother, the unexpected hero of the story, as "the Last Puritan.") For here is the key to McInerney: Without the oomph, without the euphoric possibility that all social memory, that all context, can be obliterated in favor of The Moment—the moment the cocaine uploads to your septum, the model succumbs to your advances, the trade goes in your favor—he is mostly an MFA taxidermist and a self-puffing bore.
It is as possible to damn with hyperbole as it is with faint praise. Let's not burden the poet of no context with Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Let's not even burden him with Raymond Carver and A Fan's Notes. His path to immortality runs directly through the oomph, through The Moment, through the golden archness of Yuppieback and McWriting.
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.
Photograph of Jay McInerney by Scott Gries/Getty Images.