Novelist and archetypal 80s yuppie Jay McInerney has swapped the bright lights and big city for a wife kids and -yikes ‑ a house in the country. Jeff Dawson catches up with the old party animal
Picture Editor Duane Ashurst
Jay Mclnerney ducks down behind a crumpled copy of The New York Times and pulls a pained expression. 'This guy sort of follows me around trying to give me his work,' he splutters, gesturing towards the window, where a purposeful‑looking chappy paces back and forth on the pavement. 'I don't know why people keep thrusting manuscripts on me and stuff ‑ it's to give them my benediction or something. I'm not a publisher, you know.'
It has to be said that there's probably an ounce of pride lurking beneath Mclnerney's ostensible disdain. But, after a few minutes of hiding, the coast is clear and the benefits of this prime location ‑ a visible table in Manhattan's premier literary haunt, the Union Square Cafe ‑ resurface. These chiefly take the form of a cool feminine beauty who spots McInerney and wafts over to our table.
“Former model. One of my favourite New York girls,” winks Jay, as the beauty strolls up to plant a hefty pair of 'mwaw, mwaw' kisses on the writer's cheeks. The woman is so attractive that you'd happily sell your family for a minute of her time. She knows it, too, and is unseduced by the wicked grin breaking out across Jay's face. 'I have my own stalker,' he gurgles, laying his anecdote at her feet. Unmoved, she turns to me. “Whatever he's telling you is lie,' she says...
Playing with the beautiful people in the Big Apple is what made novelist Jay McInerney famous. His stunning 1984 debut novel, Bright Lights, Big City, an autobiographical account of a week‑long bender, won the then 29‑year‑old instant cult status. And he's still very good at it, employing the skills he honed to perfection in the late 80s, when he became New York's literary party animal and a self-styled icon of the hedonism that characterised the twilight years of Reaganism.
'I kind of lived the life of a rock 'n' roll novelist,' says McInerney. Which is true, for if there was a nightclub, McInerney was in it; if there was a magazine cover, he was on it. Wherever he went, a selection of classy women drifted into his world. And all activities were fuelled by the hoovering of prodigious quantities of cocaine: blow, snow, Charlie, nose candy or, as McInerney referred to it, 'Bolivian marching powder'.
'I don't think I will hit the mid‑life crisis because I don't think there's much I forgot to do back then,' McInerney smirks, recalling the days when he burned the candle at both ends with the likes of Boy George and Bret Easton Ellis. 'I mean, there was such a spotlight focused on me. I was a symbol of something and it's very hard work being a symbol. Everything I did was scrutinised, written about and photographed. People thought it was amusing to offer me drugs and then say, "I did coke with Jay McInerney ". And then there were the girls. It was fun but… I get exhausted just thinking about it.'
Today he's a youthful‑looking, with sparkly grey eyes, eyes, a thick mop of black curly hair and a fine line in GQ‑man couture. But, like a schoolboy who's stumbled upon a stash of porn mags, McInerney still exudes a mischievous glow and continues to keep his thermometer firmly placed under the armpit of popular culture (he likes Oasis, for example, and has an unhealthy concern for the Princess of Wales' cellulite). But, as for living on the edge, he retreated from the crumbling cliff tops a while ago. 'It helped that I fell in love and got married,' he says. 'Since I'm not much of a dancer, the only point in going to nightclubs till four in the morning is to chase girls. If you find the right woman early, you look around and ask yourself, "Who needs this?"
Indeed, since December 1991, when he was married (for the third time) to beautiful jewellery designer Helen Bransford, McInerney has decamped. He spends at least six months of the year in a sumptuous rural spread in Tennessee, shocking his writer pals who found it difficult enough to prise him away from the bar, let alone his beloved Manhattan.
He then set even more tongues wagging when he and his wife embarked upon an extraordinary quest to have children, involving a groundbreaking in vitro fertilization procedure, using Jay's sperm and the eggs of a mutual best friend, which were then implanted into the womb of a surrogate mother. The result was twins ‑ Mazie and Barrett. 'There was a lot of gossip going around New York ‑ saying that I was sleeping with some other woman trying to conceive a child and all that shit,' he says.
But then, being talked about is something McInerney is used to, and he's lapping it all up once again with the release of his latest book, The Last of the Savages. A sprawling epic spanning 30 years, the novel is about a rich, Southern rock impresario and a repressed, middle‑class lawyer whose interconnecting lives were shaped by the 60s. 'I was always very jealous of the people who got to live the 60s,' muses McInerney, who was there in body, but too short‑trousered to indulge in its psychedelic spirit. 'For me, the 60s is kind of like the girl you almost slept with but didn't ‑ it drives you mad...'
It's a good job McInerney wasn't around back then, for he'd no doubt have ended up choking on his own vomit in Haight Ashbury or something. As a result, The Last of the Savage is his least autobiographical work to date ‑ in the sense that it isn't imbued with the overwhelming sense of 'I' which pervades his other novels.
McInerney was drawn into the solacing nightlife described in his first book when his first wife left him, he was fired from his first 'proper' job as a fact‑checker for The New Yorker magazine ('I'm reputedly the first person ever to be asked to leave,' he says with glee) and his mother died of cancer. His second book, Ransom, was based on a two‑year sojourn in Japan. His third, Story of My Life, was a young female version of Bright Lights, Big City‑ a catalogue of drugs, more drugs and blow‑job etiquette, gleaned from the conversation of female friends.
Neither follow‑up, however, curried any favour with a tweedy literary establishment whose members seemed to be much irked by McInerney's celebrity status. The critical stain was only exacerbated by the woeful 1988 movie version of Bright Lights, Big City, in which the strung‑out, cokehead lead was played by an actor whose squeaky clean, skateboarding persona was at odds with everything the book had stood for. 'Er, Michael J Fox was completely the wrong person for the part,' admits McInerney, who is nonetheless full of praise for the diminutive actor's diligent research for the part, which involved trailing McInerney on several of his nocturnal adventures. 'He was certainly in character,' chuckles Jay. 'It's a tribute to his professionalism that he was on set every morning at six. Unlike me.'
McInerney's reputation was restored with his next novel 1992's Brightness Falls ‑ an acute satire of the literary and Wall Street crowd. But the stuffed shirts were not ready to forgive a Young Turk who admits himself that his reason for becoming a novelist was that he thought 'it could be a cool way to get laid. I discovered Dylan Thomas and became enamoured of the image of the bad‑boy writer,' he says. 'They pinched the girls and drank the drink and died young.' The dying young bit has, presumably, been put on hold, but the girls have featured highly ('All men need just four things,' as one character in Brightness Falls says: 'Food, shelter, pussy and strange pussy').
After his first wife, model Linda Rossiter, bolted, wife number two, Merry Reymond, got the hell out of Dodge when she realised she wasn't hitched to a nice quiet academic. There ensued a public four-year affair with Maria Hanson, a former model and the victim of a notorious New York mugging incident which left her disfigured. Their relationship ended abruptly when McInerney ran off with Helen, a longstanding friend, who is six years his senior and no shrinking violet herself.
But don't for one minute believe that the man now equipped with both a family and a rustic existence, involving horse‑riding and other pastimes that are anathema to the barfly ideal, has gone completely out to pasture. In fact, catch Jay's ansaphone in the apartment he still keeps in town, and his message 'Hi, this is Jay and I'm back in my real home' ‑ will remind you that New York is where his heart is.
'It's not that I wanted to leave New York and cut all ties. It's just that I had drunk New York so deep it was time for a new well. I couldn't have kept living that way,' he says. 'I didn’t want to go into rehab, I just wanted to cut down. It's not that I don't still go out because I do.' And make no mistake about this last point. 'I still go out way more than anybody I know of my age,' he insists. 'I'm just not as hysterical as I used to be...' •
The Last of the Savages by Jay McInerney is published by Bloomsbury, £15.99.