Jay McInerney, still rooting for New York

With ‘Bright Lights, Big City’, he established himself as the chronicler of the city’s hedonistic 1980s elite. Thirty years later, he is still fascinated with wealth

Image Credit: NYT
Jay McInerney's Bright, Precious Days is the third novel in a series about Russell and Corrine Calloway who came to New York chasing a literary dream
Gulf News

It is more than 30 years since “Bright Lights, Big City”, Jay McInerney’s first and most famous novel was published, and everything and nothing has changed. The 61-year-old still lives in Manhattan, in a penthouse a few blocks from one of his first addresses in New York. (In the early 1980s, the rent on his Bowery apartment was $375 a month. A night at the Bowery Hotel, where McInerney stayed recently while his air conditioning was being fixed, is $425 [Dh1,561]). When he’s in the city, he still goes out “every night”. And he retains a charm perennially described as “boyish” but that strikes me, today, as something more tentative, a state of mild bafflement that seems poised between hopefulness and the ever-present threat of disappointment.

The most unwavering aspect of McInerney’s life, at least as it pertains to his public image as a novelist, is his identification with the upper echelons of New York society, an affiliation that has earned him a reputation over the years as a social butterfly. McInerney is the first to say of his own experience: “It became a little unrepresentative. Successful novelist is not an everyman category,” and to add, somewhat ruefully, that unlike the protagonist of his latest novel, Bright, Precious Days, who struggles to raise kids in New York on a publishing salary, when McInerney’s own children were born, “I was actually pretty flush.”

The novelist’s divorce from Helen Bransford, his third wife and his children’s mother, wiped him out financially, but his fourth wife, Anne Hearst, is an heiress and “a certified member of the Upper East Side social crowd”, the ins and outs of which continue to preoccupy his work. In light of all this, I had expected to find someone a little mannered, a touch absurd in the Tom Wolfe style. Instead, this morning, McInerney is guileless to a degree that makes me feel vaguely anxious for him.

“Bright, Precious Days” is the third novel in a series, after “Brightness Falls” and “The Good Life”, and chronicles the lives of Russell and Corrine Calloway, who came to New York in the 1980s chasing a literary dream and woke to find themselves, at 50, in a small apartment with two children, one bathroom and no money for summer plans. McInerney calls this the “life not lived”; had he not become a successful writer, he would in all likelihood have become an editor like Russell Calloway, one of the stretched middle classes in a city increasingly hostile to anyone not on or married to a banking salary. “They’re lucky and privileged in some ways,” he says. “But in other ways — most 50-year-old parents would like to have some space and multiple bathrooms. These are the kinds of sacrifices people make to stay in Manhattan. Is the price of being a New Yorker worth it?”

This question and the assumptions underpinning it are, as with the focus of so much of McInerney’s work, vulnerable to a charge of “so what?”. The Calloways, who live above their means and knock around town with hedge fund managers and billionaires, might move out of the city to a perfectly good life elsewhere. That they can’t bring themselves to go — not even to the suburbs, but merely uptown to Harlem — is not a drama with wide-ranging appeal. Meanwhile, their creator’s view from the penthouse can come across, in these times, as a little unseemly. Beyond the exigencies of the story, the rich matter, says McInerney, because, “I think as a writer it’s certainly interesting to observe them. And I think not enough people do. These people have a huge influence on the way that we all live. And I do think these [hedge fund] guys are usually either figures of satire or weird wish fulfilment - girly romance-novel fantasy. But more often they’re objects of derision.”

There is an assumption of philistinism, I say.

“Exactly. And sometimes it’s justified. I had dinner with a friend of mine last night who’s a Wall Street guy, and he’s on the board of the Whitney Museum, he’s the major patron of the Roundabout Theatre. He’s involved in so many cultural and charitable activities — I admire that. I know him because he’s a wine collector. I make fun of wine collectors; some of them are philistines. But I don’t know. I try to keep an open mind.”

McInerney is, famously, a wine collector himself and his enthusiasm for his billionaire chums on the scene is so artless, it feels a little grudging to hold it against him. Nonetheless, a few months ago, his old friend Bret Easton Ellis took McInerney to task, telling the “Sunday Times” that their friendship had cooled because Easton Ellis wasn’t rich enough for McInerney.

“Huh!” says McInerney. “I didn’t see that!” He looks taken aback. Actually, I say, Easton Ellis’s first charge was that their friendship had cooled because McInerney didn’t like how his friend had portrayed him in his novel, Lunar Park. “I actually thought it was very fun,” says McInerney and laughs, mirthlessly. “He insists on saying that. I thought it was very amusing. Bret never says ... you can never take anything he says straight. He’s always gone for effect. Up until a couple of years ago, I saw him pretty regularly. We were very, very close. I think when Bret decided to leave New York he chose to reject a lot of what he left behind. He had a very hard time here in the end and I think that, basically, he’s very down on New York for very complicated reasons — some personal, some symbolic — and I think I represent New York and his old life, including some very difficult aspects.”

In their heyday, the two men, along with the novelist Tama Janowitz, formed a literary rat pack and were frequently out on the town until dawn. McInerney gives a big sigh. “Personally, I’m a little sad about his wholesale rejection of the city. He’s been saying for the last 10 years that New York’s over, New York’s over. Well, just because you chose to leave, doesn’t mean everything ended.”

One thing that strikes me about McInerney’s image in that era is that he was only a “bad boy” in comparison to some perversely old-fashioned idea of the novelist. Unlike Edward St Aubyn, say, McInerney never seemed in any real danger of falling down a drugs hole never to return.

“No, no, I wasn’t that guy,” he laughs. “I was the guy who, after staying up till dawn, would feel horribly hungover and remorseful for the next few days, before I went out and did it again. What is that book of [St Aubyn’s], set in New York? It’s just gruelling. And wonderful.”

He means “Bad News”, the second in St Aubyn’s series of five autobiographical novels that describes how he nearly died from a heroin overdose while in New York in the 1980s. “It makes me think, ‘Hey, I’m not so bad!’ He was so far out there. Also, I had to write.”

You weren’t privately funded, I say.

“I wasn’t. I graduated from college and my parents said goodbye and good luck. They paid my tuition, and that was it. So I was scrambling around. When I first came to New York, I was writing freelance book reviews, doing freelance copy editing. Until I published Bright Lights, I was very strapped. Which I’m, frankly, grateful for. I’ve seen far too many trust fund kids fail to launch in any direction except down.”

McInerney grew up all over the US as his father, a sales and marketing executive, frequently changed jobs, eventually settling in Pittsfield, Massachusetts for his high-school years and graduating from Williams College in 1976. He went on to attain a masters degree, studying writing under Raymond Carver, at Syracuse University, and then moved to New York, where he set about living the rackety life that would provide the material for his first novel.

“Bright Lights” sold millions of copies when it came out in the mid-1980s and established McInerney as an arresting new talent and, perhaps, thanks to the vigour and innovation of that book, with its famous second-person narrative — “you are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning” — as a more literary novelist than he would turn out to be. In “Bright, Precious Days”, there are many good, sharp scenes that nail the social swirl and hypocrisy of wealthy New York, but there isn’t much in the way of real psychological acuity, and many of the characters struggle to rise above the level of stereotype. McInerney has, it seems to me, suffered over the years by trying to flog himself into a posher novelist than he naturally is.

Either way, he seems touchingly pleased with the good reviews the novel has earned in the US. “For years, I felt like I had been paying for the success of ‘Bright Lights, Big City’; my perceived manner of life, whether it’s the alleged partying or being a semi-public figure, or being comfortably off. I feel like, with this book, it was finally judged on its merits. There are a lot of people out there who resented me. I hope that’s over.”

McInerney is surely right when he says his early fame and wealth tipped opinion against him. Twenty years ago, when his twins were born, he was living in very un-writerly style in a four-bedroom co-op in the Carlyle hotel. (It was originally a two-bedroom, but, when the twins arrived, he bought the co-op downstairs from his friend Stephen Fry, and knocked through). “And look — I wish I had been more sensible. I wish I had invested more wisely. I wish I had bought the painting that Jean-Michel Basquiat offered me at three in the morning, for $700. It would be worth like $30 million today. I didn’t invest wisely, I didn’t conserve the money. I got divorced three times, which squandered money. On the other hand, I haven’t been a trainwreck, either. I’ve been stumbling along fairly successfully.”

His worst financial period was in 2000, when McInerney was overdue by a year in delivering “The Good Life” and living alone in a one-bedroom apartment. “I was really up against the wall. I was getting divorced and trying to take care of the kids, and I had to really produce to get my way out of this. I was in debt. It was boom and bust. The Carlyle apartment mostly went to my ex-wife and kids — which is as it should be. I don’t regret any of that.”

He and his ex-wife remained on good terms, which is characteristic of McInerney. “Of the various exes,” he says, “including the ones that I didn’t marry, I’m close to all but one or two.” One knows men like this and they are always on good terms with their exes, always given the benefit of the doubt by their women on the basis of likability, affability and a mild but irresistible propensity to appear slightly lost. To marry four times is, of course, not a sign of cynicism, but its opposite. “I am an optimistic person. I like to think I’m romantic.” McInerney shrugs and looks pained. “I also think I’ve settled down. You can only blow up your life so many times before it becomes a little ridiculous.”

In other words, he grew up and is now something of an elder statesman — “a scary thought. Well, I’ve been waiting!” The trilogy is an attempt by McInerney to take a mature, “panoramic view of New York” and some aspects of that are more successful than others. The publishing world is, of course, very well rendered, but Corrine Calloway runs a food bank in the Bronx and there is some excruciating dialect — “Don’t you be talking ‘bout my kids. Ain’t none ayo’ [expletive] bidness” — from the characters there, to whom Corrine ministers before popping off to lunch at the Four Seasons with her billionaire lover. I mention Jonathan Franzen’s spat over race — the novelist’s confession, in an interview in Slate, that he doesn’t write books about race because, “I don’t have very many black friends.”

“Did he? I missed that one. Oh lord. Well. On the one hand I suppose I understand that response. On the other hand, I think if you’re someone like Jonathan Franzen, who attempts to write on the grand scale about the large issues of the republic, and of existence, I can understand why somebody noticed this omission. It’s true. Now that I think about it, there aren’t any black characters in his books. Well, far be it from me to criticise Franzen. He’s an important novelist. But yeah, suddenly it does seem slightly surprising.”

McInerney laughs good-naturedly. “I hadn’t thought of his work in that way, but looking back, yup: white, white, white.”

The current political landscape is one that, along with everyone else in the US, McInerney can only look on at in wonder. In the 2008 election, he was an early Obama supporter and says of his tenure: “I don’t think he’s done a terrible job, given what he’s faced. I’m not sure who could’ve dealt with that obstructionist Republican congress; a Lyndon Johnson, or someone with slicker legislative skills could’ve brought them around a little, maybe, although obstructionism is the religion of these rightwing republicans.”

Incredibly, Rudy Giuliani officiated at McInerney’s fourth wedding. They haven’t met this election season but generally, “When I see him,I just avoid the subject of politics altogether, because I know we’re not going to agree on anything.”

As for Trump: “He’s this cartoon of a New York tycoon, and barely a tycoon at that. I have friends in the real estate business and they say, number one, he has hugely overinflated his wealth, and number two, he’s impossible to do business with; he’s not trustworthy, he sues everybody. He’s not well regarded in that community.”

It’s the community McInerney holds dear. “And seriously, he was not a presence on the Upper East Side social world. He’s not charitable, or philanthropic and he’s not social. One of the reasons many of us think he won’t release his tax returns is that he’s never given anything to charity in his life. As a New Yorker, I regret that he’s associated with the city I love.”

Whenever McInerney starts a new novel, he has to clear out of the city to Vermont, or Rhode Island, until he has the thing under way. But he always comes back. And when he’s in New York, he really does go out every night. “Every night,” he says. “Otherwise, I don’t know; that’s the point of New York?”

It is this, 30 years down the line, that distinguishes McInerney from so many other burnt-out veterans of his city and his trade — the utter lack of a jaded world view. “This is a nice apartment,” he says, enthusiasm rising. “But most of what I’m paying for is out there.”

–Guardian News & Media Ltd

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