McInerney, Jay. Bright Lights Big City. Vintage New York, 1984. F;7/16.
McInerney was a notoriously hard-living young writer who made his name with this novel which is written in the second person (“you woke up and wondered where you had been all night”). The plot action has the unnamed narrator knocking around the 1980s New York club and drug scene. The story was made into a movie 1n 1988 starring a young Michael J Fox and Kiefer Sutherland.
I’d call the writing transparent. I don’t think it amounts to much in the way of virtuosity, but it lets the fairly autobiographical character develop and eventually emerge as credible.
24-year-old narrator fancies himself literary, and works as a fact-checker at an unnamed New York highbrow magazine, obviously inspired by the New Yorker where McInerney worked. Narrator’s nightlife, encouraged by an irrepressible womanizing buddy, contributes to his being fired from the magazine and we assume also to losing his fashion-model wife who informs him from Paris that she’s hooked up with another man. His brother, who holds him in contempt but changes his mind, arrives from out of town to inform him that his mother is dying.
I’m not sure what made this book such a success. It reflects contemporary life in the Big Apple, but bad-boy sex and drugs isn’t enough by itself to distinguish it from Barney Panofsky or even Saint Jack. And somehow I doubt that the character depth McInerney achieves would by itself thrill the masses. Maybe the combination of the two… Anyway, I ended up impressed and in fact quite moved by the late plot events and the underlying tone.
At one point for example in his conversation with his dying mum he tells us how he “described the feeling you had always had of being misplaced, of always standing to one side of yourself, of watching yourself in the world even as you were being in the world, and wondering if this was how everyone felt.” How he always thought others somehow had a clearer idea of what was going on. I’ve felt that way all my life and, yes, wonder if everybody else does.
McInerny’s flat transparency found its way intact through the mother’s touching death-scene. They reconcile and recover a relationship I identified with emotionally. He describes his first day of school and recalls clinging to her leg. All this helps our narrator understand that his marriage didn’t come close to what he is really looking for, and that he won’t find it in the glittering pleasures of the big city either. The book ends with the lovely idea that “(he) will have to learn everything all over again”.
To do which takes, I think, courage. And don’t we suddenly confront, surprisingly often, realization that makes us understand that relearning – maybe not quite everything but at least a significant part of what makes us tick – will solve some major problem but will take some, maybe a lot of, work. Time and trouble. And then we have to ask Is it worth it? I’ve found that once in awhile it is.
Connecting me with that kind of sentiment plus the straightforward description of a young guy having trouble coming to terms with early-adult challenges of love and work and connecting with his dying mum, was enough for me to accept the character – and the author – as real. More real, for example, than any of the more modern men in Yanagihara’s superficially much more complicated Little Life. Little indeed.
Solid character and sentiment disguised as sardonic commentary on the emptiness of the big city. I’m a believer. 8.9/8.2.