RANSOM. By Jay McInerney Vintage. 280 pp. Paperback, $5.95.
CAN YOU BLAME Howard Kaminsky?
Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City was a huge seller for Random House's Vintage Contemporaries series and will soon be a movie, starring Tom Cruise and a large satchel of cocaine. Now Kaminsky, the head of Random House, proudly announces in a letter to reviewers of McInerney's new novel, Ransom, that his young author is "not only an important new writer but also a voice of his generation." Its literary grandeur is such that there will be a first printing of 100,000, a "full color poster" and a "16-copy floor display."
"Ransom is a novel of grand scale and serious implications," Kaminsky boasts. "I know you will admire it as we all do." There is, alas, little about Ransom that is grand, serious or admirable.
Bright Lights, Big City was a book admired most deeply, I suspect, by people who thought it was the novel they would write if they could get a year off from the horrific responsibilities of urban affluence. It tackled such universal themes as the fact-checking department of The New Yorker and the downtown rock club scene. The pleasures of the book are too often the pleasures of sneering contempt and hyped-up abandon featuring the revival of a familiar character from the '20's -- the disaffected prep. Had Bright Lights, Big City relied solely on its portrait of the club scene and its potshots at "The Druid," a fictional stand-in for New Yorker editor William Shawn, the book would have been merely an exercise in personal reporting. (The author has said that the club scene was his scene and The New Yorker his old place of employ.) But McInerney did not stop there. He tossed in "emotions" and "the promise of reform" as if the book were a recipe lacking sweetness and light. The novel's passions are sops to a half-remembered sense of the upstanding literary citizen.
We are supposed to believe that the author really is sincere when he provides his protagonist with a redemptive, pathetically banal, epiphany. With a bag of rolls at his feet, the stoned young gent falls to his knees:
"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."
If this be the voice of a new generation, then the generation is better off mute.
McInerney's characters were clever in all the wrong ways, and his highly praised realism was simply a matter of naming all the right contemporary touchstones of post-university yuppie cool: the Talking Heads, Zito's Bakery, Bolivian Marching Powder (aka cocaine).
Ransom is an even less skilled, less felt performance.The protagonist is disenchanted with the terrible maladies of affluence and imperfect parents. Christopher Ransom will not forgive his father for being a creator of mediocre television shows, for helping him gain entrance to Princeton, for having a difficult marriage. So Ransom goes to Asia, first to the Indian subcontinent, where he samples some of the local hash and desperation, then to Kyoto, where he becomes a fanatical student of karate. His devotion to the sport, expressed in pretentious pseudo-Oriental mumbo-jumbo, is so moronic that Ransom seems like a Rambo with a diploma.
Once more, the few pleasures of McInerney's work can be found in its rather ordinary journalism, its witty feature writing. But McInerney should have checked the morgue. We've heard all this stuff before: the comic attempt of the Japanese to sing the blues ("the eagle fries of Flyday, Sa'day I go out to pray"), the odd feeling of being a foreigner (gaijin) in a profoundly homogenous island country, the Westernized bars amid golden temples.
McINERNEY implicitly condemns Ransom for his escape from his own world into one he can only visit, just as he condemned the cynicism of his characters in Bright Lights, Big City. Neither book, though, has anything else to offer. Their endings are so trite and unconvincing that one wishes, perversely, that the author had been content to celebrate a world of escape, of laziness, of disaffection.
As for Ransom's allegedly "grand scale," the book can be read in an hour and or two. As for its "serious implications," none of them is strictly literary. They have more to do with a useless obsession with "voices of generations" and other silly tags. Writers in their twenties and early thirties such as Madison Smartt Bell or David Leavitt have, by no means, published anything on a par with the books that made Hemingway or Fitzgerald major reputations before their 30th birthdays, but their writing isull of promise and skill. A book such as Brad Leithauser's first novel about an American in Kyoto, Equal Distance, shows the thinness of McInerney's performance, the poverty of his details and images.
There is little wrong with writing two trivial books. And there is nothing wrong with their selling like hotcakes. But there is something deeply wrong with calling hotcakes art and calling the short-order chef an artist.