Home stretch: McInerney at his part-time residence in Nashville
Jay McInerney, no stranger to headlines and gossip columns, has turned the turmoil of the late eighties into fiction. GRAYDON CARTER distinguishes art from life.
As you may already know, Jay McInerney's Brightness Falls (Knopf) has arrived, and if not the "big book" long promised, it is nevertheless sparkling evidence of the author's maturation as a writer and of his talents as a storyteller with a pronounced gift for dialogue. Variously titled Tender Offers and Party's End during its gestation, the book is a worthy addition to the New York in the mid‑ to late-1980s literary canon ‑somewhat sprawling, somewhat funny, somewhat Wall Streetish, somewhat Proustian, and so forth.
McInerney has achieved greater fame faster than any other American writer since Norman Mailer, so it's difficult to evaluate this book solely on its literary merits ‑his notoriety is such that he might well have written Brightness Falls in the window of Bergdorf Goodman. But ignoring the press clippings for a moment, this book is surely a step forward in a remarkable career that has already had enough ups and downs for a lifetime.
Having performed the clever party trick of writing in the second person for his first novel, the smart, comic Bright Lights, Big City, and in the first person for his third, the far less successful Story of My Life, McInerney has taken the advice that creative writing instructors pass on to their charges: write in the third person, and write about what you know. And what Mr. McInerney knows is the antic, overheated circus that New York City became during those years.
The title is presumably intended as a bookend reference to Bright Lights -one picks up the story of the city at the beginning of the decade, the other follows it to its sorry, shamed conclusion. As such, Brightness Falls represents a sort of "Greatest Hits" of New York in the eighties, with a veritable checklist of the decade's touchstones: AIDS? Check. Leveraged buyout by management? Check. Short corporate raider with tall wife? Check. Stock market crash? Check. Homeless person? Check. Tompkins Square Park riots? Check. Nell's? Check. Drexel Burnham Lambert? Check. Whitney Biennial? Robert Chambers? Live at Five? Check, check, check. There is even a harrowing fictional variation on an incident some years back in which a baby was dropped during a fashion shoot.
At the center of all this headline fashionableness is Russell Calloway, an upwardly mobile editor at Corbin, Dern, an old-line publishing house, and his wife, Corrine Makepeace, a stockbroker. As the only stable force in their swirl of dissolute singles, their apartment had "become a supper club for their less settled acquaintances… " And here the novel opens, at a party that McInerney unravels in assured, telling detail.
At the office, Russell happens upon the house's chief editor in a compromising position with his secretary. When he begins getting the cold shoulder from his boss, Russell realizes that his career, at least at Corbin, Dern, appears significantly stalled. At any other time in history, he would simply move on. But this being the mid‑eighties, Russell does what Victor Kiam did with Norelco ‑he decides to buy the company. His partners are a brutish corporate raider, the disaffected daughter of the firm's founder, and a Wall Street takeover specialist with a big Filofax and plenty of hair and hormones. As the book and its characters hurtle toward Wall Street's apocalypse on October 19, 1987, Russell and Corrine's marriage disintegrates ‑metaphor alert!- with every downtick of the Dow.
That's the A plot ‑the main course. For sprawling novels to be sprawling, however, they have to be laden with B plots‑the starters, side dishes, desserts, and so on. McInerney evidently spent a good deal of time in the kitchen on these, with mixed results. Chief among the B‑plot extras is Jeff Pierce, a college pal of Russell's whose first novel was a monster hit, entitling him to engage in a writerly lifestyle of dating models, having a messy apartment, and drinking too much. He gets hooked on heroin and is rusticated to an expensive rehab resort. There are all sorts of cameo appearances, principally by a homeless fellow named Ace; Juan Baptiste, a downtown gossip columnist; and an Al Sharptonish black activist who heads a youth organization.
McInerney insists his novels are not in any way autobiographical, but this is disingenuous. He writes only about himself and his friends. The unnamed protagonist of Bright Lights was a pharmaceutically relaxed writer and club crawler married to a model ‑as was McInerney before he wrote it. Similarly, the character Tad Allagash was modeled on one or both of his two close friends at the time, his editor Gary Fisketjon and Morgan Entrekin. Perhaps out of habit, or perhaps simply as commercial hedge, McInerney has again relied on the parlor‑game diversion of the roman à clef in Brightness Falls.
Jeff Pierce has a career trajectory and problems not unfamiliar to McInerney. There is as well the Gary Fisketjonesque Russell, who "had launched the careers of Jeff Pierce and several other not insignificant writers at an age when most publishing slaves were still typing letters." Who is that hiding behind the mask of the revered Harold Stone if not Random House editor Jason Epstein? Isn't that Harold Brodkey over there on page nineteen disguised as Victor Propp? Propp, like Brodkey until late last year, had been working on his big book for about twenty years, "the deadline for delivery receding gradually into a semi‑mythical future. In this unfinished condition it, and its author, had become a local literary legend…” Erroll McDonald, a McInerney club chum and editor‑about‑town, makes an appearance as Washington Lee, the with‑it black Corbin, Dern editor. And Julian Heath, owner of a hot downtown restaurant with all the best booths up front, could easily be based on one or another of the McNally brothers, either Brian (who owned Canal Bar and 150 Wooster at the time) or Keith (who owns Nell's).
Sprinkled here and there throughout the book there are even sly references to previous McInerney works. As in Bright Lights, although less so, there is a leitmotiv of New York Post headlines. At one point, McInerney has Russell repeating the phrase that punctuated his third book: "Story of my life…”
McInerney's ear for dialogue is demonstrable ‑he gets it, he really does. And there are passages that are nothing short of marvelous, including a delightful bit in which Jeff Pierce recalls his first attempt at buying breakfast in New York and a funny essay‑cum‑musing on the politics and etiquette of the literary lunch.
The sort of upper‑middlebrow fiction that was once the primary vehicle for passing on how people lived back when to future generations has been out of vogue for years. And McInerney is a throwback to all of that. He is not a serviceable club hitter but rather a writer capable of the commercial home run. And home‑run hitters tend to either hit it out of the park or go shuffling off to the dugout, twitching and mumbling to themselves. This time we have Brightness Falls‑a home run on errors, but a homer nevertheless.