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Bright Lights, Big City ()


Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels (97)

    Bright lights, big city...Where skin-deep is the mode, your traditional domestic values are not going
    to take root and flourish.
            -Jay McInerney

It seems hard to account for the visceral loathing that Jay McInerney provoked in critics after publishing this best-selling first novel.  Here's a typical comment from Weekly Wire:

    Hot young actor Ethan Hawke's first novel, The Hottest State, is mostly reminiscent of what used
    to pass for literary writing in the 1980s: a first person narrative of a vapid young man living in
    New York City, told without allusion, metaphor or self-reference. Essentially, the kind of
    airport-novel-taken-as-art for which Jay McInerney and Brett Easton Ellis were once praised, and
    then later reviled.

Bad enough to be hammered like that, but to be lumped with the truly awful Bret Easton Ellis?  Ouch!  Perhaps it was simply the jealousy that authors always seem to feel towards successful fellow writers.  Perhaps it was a generational thing; who was this punk kid to replace Hemingway's wine drenched Paris with a coke sprinkled New York?  And, of course, his own generation was hardly going to defend an author who told them that they were all shallow and wasting their lives.  Whatever the cause, the literary establishment has been so aggressively dismissive of him and this novel that liking it feels almost like a guilty pleasure.  But I do like it very much.

The book is unusual in that it is written in the second person, which, combined with the tone, makes the whole thing read, appropriately,  like an admonishment.  It opens in a Manhattan night spot with the line:  "You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning."  But, of course, that is exactly the type of person that the nameless protagonist of the novel has become, hopping from night club to night club, looking for cocaine and women, with "no goal higher than pursuit of pleasure."  He alternately avoids and seeks out his friend Tad Allagash (Tad calls the hero Coach, so we will too) because Tad represents the worst of his own personal tendencies, but is also a ready source of drugs.  Coach is well on his way to blowing his job at a magazine that is a hilarious put on of the The New Yorker, with burned out writers haunting the hallways.  Eventually he is fired after turning in an error filled piece on France that he was supposed to be fact checking.  We also discover that his wife Amanda has recently abandoned him to pursue her modeling career.  Coach has taken to wandering by a department store window that has a dress dummy modeled after her.   Over the course of several days of avoiding responsibilities and the brother who is trying to contact him, abusing coke & booze at every waking moment, the remainder of Coach's life collapses around him.

McInerney's portrait of these young New Yorkers is truly devastating; they are all surface with no depth.  Coach remains friendly with Tad because:

    Just now you want to stay at the surface of things, and Tad is a figure skater who never considers
    the sharks under the ice.  You have friends who actually care about you and speak the language of
    the inner self.  You have avoided them of late.  Your soul is as disheveled as your apartment, and
    until you clean up a little you don't want to invite anyone inside.

Coach had doubts about marrying Amanda because:

    You did not feel that you could open quite all of your depths to her, or fathom hers, and sometimes
    you feared she didn't have any depths.

Meanwhile, he finds himself asking, "when did she become a mannequin?", because she is little different than her fiberglass doppelganger in the store display.  When he meets her in a nightclub at the end of the novel, she is with an impossibly handsome young man who she claims is her fiancé, but he turns out to be an escort.  The woman Coach is dancing with that night turns out to be transsexual.  Noone is real, like the neon lighting in which their lives unfold everything is artificial; at best they are playing roles, at worst they are truly empty at the core (they have become the "Men without Chests" that C.S. Lewis warned of).  Coach himself frames the episodes in his life as chapters from a novel, complete with titles.  It's as if he is incapable of handling reality and must make a fiction of his own life, must turn himself into a literary construct.

Finally, as he hits bottom, Coach begins to rebound.  His brother catches up to him and they discuss the loss of their Mother, who sickened and died a year earlier.  Coach is, at last, able to confront his own sense of loss.   He calls an old girlfriend and tells her: "I was just thinking that we have a responsibility to the dead--the living, I mean."  The novel ends with him down at the docks, trading his sunglasses for some fresh baked bread.  Hard to avoid pedantry here, but the bread pretty obviously represents the Staff of Life, the values of the heartland and the pleasures of hearth and home, as well as a means of resurrection--in the most fundamental sense, he is taking communion.  Coach's decision to abandon the bright lights (he won't need the sunglasses anymore) and turn back towards the basics is a triumphal moment in modern fiction.

In an era when "white bread" has become pejorative, an author who has his hero saved by a bread roll is obviously trying to communicate something.  It would be a shame if those same shallow folk whom the book is aimed at were to succeed in dismissing it as no more than a "drug book".   It is a really fine novel and one of the few significant social fictions, along with Bonfire of the Vanities and Love Always (see review), to emerge from the 80's.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A)

  

Websites:

Jay McInerney Links:

    -REVIEW: of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" by Mark Haddon (Jay McInerney, NY Times Book Review)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Featured Author: News and Reviews From the Archives of The New York Times
    -Encyclopaedia Britannica: Your search: "Jay McInerney"
    -ESSAY: RAYMOND CARVER: A STILL, SMALL VOICE  (Jay McInerney, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Did Andy Warhol Overlook Me? (Jay McInerney, NY Times)
    -ESSAY:  How We Fell, Then and Now (Jay McInerney, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Roll Over Basho: Who Japan Is Reading, and Why: A Dialogue Between Jay McInerney and Haruki Murakami (The New York Times Book Review, September 27, 1992)
    -REVIEW: of  TURNING JAPANESE Memoirs of a Sansei. By David Mura (Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  HOCUS POCUS By Kurt Vonnegut (Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  TOKYO RISING The City Since the Great Earthquake. By Edward Seidensticker (Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of   LIFE ON EARTH By Sheila Ballantyne (Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  FAST LANES By Jayne Anne Phillips (Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  SLAVES OF NEW YORK By Tama Janowitz (Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  SELF-HELP Stories. By Lorrie Moore (Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  Infinite Jest By David Foster Wallace (Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  CIVILWARLAND IN BAD DECLINE Stories and a Novella. By George Saunders (Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  MICROSERFS By Douglas Coupland (Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  LOVE JUNKIE By Robert Plunket (Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of   (Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of   (Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW: Jay McInerney on the aftermath of literary stardom (DWIGHT GARNER, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Bright lights, big bouquet Brat Pack novelist Jay McInerney has become a jet-setting wine writer -- and the best one in the country (Matthew DeBord, Salon)
    -ARTICLE: More Than Bright Lights, Big City (NICHOLAS A. BASBANES, Salt Lake Tribune)
    -INTERVIEW: Jay McInerney on Model Behaviour (ON THE ARTS WITH LAURIE BROWN, CBC)
    -REVIEW: of RANSOM By Jay McInerney (Ron Loewinsohn, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Bright Lights, Big City  You're Fired, So You Buy a Ferret (WILLIAM KOTZWINKLE, The New York Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Story of My Life By Jay McInerney (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY times)
    -REVIEW: of STORY OF MY LIFE By Jay McInerney (Carolyn Gaiser, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW:  of Bright Lights, Big City The Fast Lane  (Darryl Pinckney, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of  Brightness Falls By Jay McInerney (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of BRIGHTNESS FALLS By Jay McInerney (Cathleen Schine, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE LAST OF THE SAVAGES By Jay McInerney (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of THE LAST OF THE SAVAGES By Jay McInerney (Geoff Dyer, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Robert Penn McInerney  The Last of the Savages  by Jay McInerney (Charles Thompson, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW: of Last of the Savages 'Savage' satire: Jay McInerney makes his point short and sweet
(David Walton, Detroit News)
    -REVIEW: of The Last of the Savages  (YVONNE CRITTENDEN -- Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW: of Last of the Savages (Stephanie Zacharek, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of Model Behavior A Novel and 7 Stories. By Jay McInerney (A. O. Scott, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW & CHAPTER ONE: of Model Behavior (Alan Gottlieb, The Denver Post)
    -REVIEW: of Model Behavior: A Novel and 7 Stories by Jay McInerney (Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of How It Ended by Jay McInerney (Robert Hanks, booksonline UK)

GENERAL :
    -ESSAY: The Financial Fiction Genre: The Rise of the Yuppie and the Social Commentators
    -REVIEW: of TALENTS AND TECHNICIANS Literary Chic and the New Assembly-Line Fiction. By John W. Aldridge (Jeffery Paine, NY Times Book Review)

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