Jay McInerney, Expectations and A Writer’s Evolution

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A couple of years ago I had the chance to talk with Michael Ondaatje. The fruits of that conversation are available in the Interviews tab above. I asked him if he felt fortunate in some way that overwhelming, mainstream success hadn’t hit him early in his career. “I was very lucky that way,” he said. “I think about that, I think of someone like [Jay] McInerney, who writes that first book, and no one can survive that. It must be a nightmare.” I had mentioned Norman Mailer in the question, and was surprised that he thought of Mailer fondly, as an important writer in his own past, but I was even less prepared for him to bring up Jay McInerney’s name.  

Implicit in Ondaatje’s comment was the conclusion that McInerney had indeed failed to come through the early scrutiny and produce work worthy of his debut, Bright Lights, Big City. “You started on the Upper East Side with champagne and unlimited prospects,” he writes early in the book, just before detailing how the night has gone off course. “You could start your own group-” he writes later, “the Brotherhood of Unfulfilled Promise.” Similar observations have been made about his career. For all that, his debut is still a remarkable book, slim and urgent, its momentum is irresistible. It clocks in at less than two-hundred pages. With that small stack of paper, McInerney’s life changed. He was legitimately famous, worthy fodder for tabloid stories, the object of generosity from strangers (in the form of cocaine) and, worst of all, of loathing and resentment from people he’d never met. ”There was a backlash,” he told Entertainment Weekly in 1992. “I got so much attention for my first novel — and for everything that I did back then, every party I went to, every girl I dated — that people got sick of hearing my name. I don’t blame them. God knows, I got sick of hearing it.” That constant attention was what he couldn’t survive, that and the sort of free hand given to Norman Mailer, who had an unfettered run after the overwhelming success of The Naked and the Dead. In Mailer’s case, that freedom produced some godawful duds and some truly brilliant work. McInerney even cited him as one of the few writers who might understand what he’d endured. Conventional wisdom had it, though, that McInerney only matched one half of the equation. It wasn’t the good half.

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Still, I’d read Bright Lights, Big City and been genuinely impressed, enough so to take on Model Behavior, which was far less satisfying. I didn’t push further, though maybe I should have. But there were so many other writers to read, ones whose work was a far safer bet. I didn’t forget McInerney, but I didn’t expect to devote much more time or thought to him.

Then last year the LA Review of Books ran an essay by Tom Dibblee called “Jay McInerney, the New York Fantasy, and Wine.” I read it with some interest, and it’s clearly stuck with me since I’m writing about it nearly a year later. Dibblee avoided reading McInerney’s acclaimed debut for several years, but when he finally did, “For me, Bright Lights, 20 years after its release, felt like a guide to the way young writers should be.” Many young writers are fortunate to find a book which has that impact on them. As we’re wont to do with additional books by the writer whose work had such a major impact, Dibblee wanted more. He notes, though, the mediocrity of McInerney’s subsequent work, singling out Story of My Life as an exception. Shortly after reading Dibblee’s essay, I happened across a used copy of that book. I made it about a dozen pages, until the young female protagonist  says, “Watch out! Rebecca’s coming to town, and I’m definitely not talking about the one from Sunnybrook Farm.” That was the end of Story of My Life for me.

In the time between Ondaatje’s comments and Dibblee’s essay, I’d learned that McInerney was friends with Eric Ripert, chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin, the finest restaurant in which I’ve ever had the good fortune to dine. McInerney had also developed a serious interest in wine. He’d written a couple of books on the subject, in addition to writing wine columns for House & Garden and now The Wall Street Journal. He’d written fiction during those years as well, so the wine writing maybe wasn’t a wholesale reinvention. Nonetheless it struck me as an appropriate progression for a man moving from the frantic youth he’d apparently had to a more comfortable middle age. Pair that with the friendship with Ripert, and he’d arranged a life for himself far more appealing to me than anything in Bright Lights, Big City. Dibblee, as was his right, wasn’t sold:

If you want to be a writer but you’re not writing, you need to feed yourself some kind of stopgap. You can’t just let your writing brain turn to mush. So you sniff on wine and you do your best to spell it all out. And it’s fun. It feels good. It’s extremely difficult to describe sense of smell. The ephemerality of the endeavor matches your mood. It’s consoling that it can’t possibly add up to anything, that this description won’t wind up on paper, that in the morning you’ll forget what you said, forget the true extent of that sniff, and be back to zero, the metric of your stasis that you feel an oddly compelling loyalty to. This zero has an intoxicating purity to it. But then for me it didn’t stop at wine and the next thing I knew I found myself talking about not just wine but morel mushrooms and porcini dust and then I woke up one day and realized, ‘What the fuck are you doing, dude? How long can you go on convincing yourself that you care about soufflés and tannins?’”

I understand the sense that the novel trumps all else a writer can do. McInerney has one remarkable novel to his credit, a book that belongs firmly to a particular moment in time, perhaps defines it even. He effectively caught lightning in a bottle the first time out, and has never approached that level again. It happened to John Horne Burns, for instance, but he died before he was forty. He also didn’t face the scrutiny, and the scourge of expectation, not the way McInerney did. Yet McInerney has kept writing. The pair of novels Dibblee found most maddening, Brightness Falls and The Good Life, are better than I expected. Admittedly part of my enjoyment may have come from the Victor Propp/Harold Brodkey character in Brightness Falls. Though they’re not career-defining statements, the two novels are the work of a more mature writer, a man at home in domestic scenes, talking about soufflés and tannins rather than snorting coke in a club toilet. It also wasn’t a progression that seemed so surprising, given Bright Lights, Big City.

Beware conflating the author and the text, or the author and the protagonist. It’s an old, basic rule, one it’s often sorely tempting to ignore. McInerney himself sought to deflect the impression that Brightness Falls was a roman a clef, and the similarities between his life and the events in Bright Lights, Big City have been remarked on repeatedly. Assuming some overlap, intentional or not, the seeds are planted in that first book for Jay McInerney, oenophile, author of low-key books about unhappy couples. Witness an early scene in a nightclub, when our hero, such as he is, considers what he will tell the woman he has longed to meet:

“When you meet her you are going to tell her that what you really want is a house in the country with a garden…You see yourself as the kind of guy who wakes up early on Sunday morning and steps out to cop the Times and croissants. Who might take a cue from the Arts and Leisure section and decide to check out an exhibition – costumes of the Hapsburg Court at the Met, say, or Japanese lacquerware of the Muromachi period at the Asia society. The kind of guy who calls up the woman he met at a publishing party Friday night, the party he did not get sloppy drunk at.”

Did McInerney possess the kind of foresight needed to make such a fine distinction so far in advance? There’s a sense the distinction fit him then, and he’s grown naturally in that direction since. The book ends with the protagonist bartering for bread: “You get down on your knees and tear open the bag. the smell of warm dough envelops you. The first bite sticks in your throat and you almost gag. You will have to go slowly. You will have to learn everything all over again.” It’s not a stretch to go from that moment to Brightness Falls, or to conclude that Bright Lights, Big City was a virtuoso performance, a brilliant one-off.

The big moment for Dibblee comes when, while waiting tables at Minetta Tavern, a group of “rowdy middle-aged men” comes in to join a woman.  They order only cheap rosé, and for reasons he doesn’t get into in great detail, are “the worst table I’d ever waited on.” When they leave, a co-worker tells Dibblee, “Now there goes a cautionary tale,” and that he’d just waited on Jay McInerney.

I interviewed Eric Ripert a couple of years ago. We sat in a salon of sorts, upstairs from his restaurant. He was gracious and elegant. He spoke accented English and told me about Le Bernardin’s trial and error approach to molecular gastronomy. He seemed calm and tolerant, a man comfortable with the good life McInerney allegedly – per Dibblee – once thought scandalous. And if he counts McInerney as a friend, I’m inclined to believe the man has genuine interest in writing about wine, and soufflés and tannins.

At the end of his essay, Tom Dibblee imagines a sit-down with McInerney, in which he informs the man that,

You always believed that the good life was scandalous, and that those who strived for and attained the good life would have to pay a price. But then you got there. You broke through. And instead of having to pay, you realized you were the same guy you’d always been and nobody was going to put you in jail — there would be no trial, there would be no punishment — and you got bored. The problem with your later books is that they’re boring. They’re boring because you’re bored. And you should be writing books about being bored. You should write about yourself…Well, I’m doing the talking now. And I’m going to read whatever you write either way. But what I want is this — a story about a middle-aged drunk who’s reckoning with the fact that he’s squandered his talent. That is the subject on which you are America’s foremost authority.

I’m less convinced than Tom Dibblee is that Jay McInerney squandered his talent. It’s entirely possible that he wasn’t a novelist of the first rank, not to the extent that each new book was destined to be a major addition to American literature. It seems more likely that he actually admired the good life, so to speak, the means to walk into one of the world’s great restaurants on a whim and order freely, both food and wine. In fact I see nothing wrong with that, nor with privileging those things over writing one more “important” novel, if there is such a thing anymore. There’s nothing sacred about being a writer, a novelist, no reason for McInerney to feel abashed or ashamed. I don’t even think he’s bored. It’s just possible he’s the man he wanted to be all along. And given Dibblee’s experience waiting on him, maybe there’s still a germ of the Bright Lights, Big City era lurking somewhere inside him. It’s just not very interesting at this point, and to his credit, McInerney appears to know it.

– John McIntyre

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