The reviewer, a poet and novelist, is the author of the novel "Dancer with One Leg."
Throughout literature there are many novels about a likable young man with two left feet, constantly in trouble with his superiors and often mixed up with the wrong woman, who yearns to get his life under control, and who searches, almost without hope, for the right woman and a course of work which will allow him to feel, to a degree, fulfilled.
These are mostly comic novels and often they are first novels. Recent examples have been "Lucky Jim," "Been Down So Long It Seems Like Up to Me" and "The Ginger Man."
"Bright Lights, Big City," by Jay McInerney, is also such a novel and a fine addition to the genre. The antagonist in these novels tends to be society itself, which throws various impediments in front of the hero, who is further disadvantaged by his inability to say no to temptation. Because society changes and places differ, we accept these novels again and again and take delight in watching the hero wage a battle similar to the way a fly fights itself free of a bowl of mushroom soup.
The society of McInerney's novel is New York City of the 1980s and the tone, speed and events of the novel are definitely of the moment. Also the novel feels breakneck and contemporary because it is told in present tense in a second person voice. We never know the hero's name or what he looks like.
Here is how it begins: "You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a night club talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge . . . The night has already turned on that imperceptible pivot where two A.M. changes to six A.M."
Even though McInerney's novel is in no way derivative of "Lucky Jim," the nameless character could easily be a Jim dropped into the New York night club life of the '80s, taking cocaine instead of drinking, working for a New Yorker-like magazine instead of teaching, just ditched by his fashion model wife instead of enmeshed with an inappropriate girl who wears glasses.
What makes us like these characters is their innocence, vulnerability and self-knowledge. After all, they are not complete fools. "The problem is:" thinks McInerney's hero in the night club, "for some reason you think you are going to meet a kind of girl who is not the kind of girl who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning."
The story of "Bright Lights, Big City" is quite simple. We meet a young man on the very edge of losing control, whose mother has recently died, whose wife has left him, who is soon fired from his job. When all seems lost, he manages to reach a degree of self-understanding that allows him to get a grip on his life. This is another characteristic of the genre. At a point of absolute ruin when any sensible person would go to bed and refuse to get up, the hero triumphs.
But what helps make this novel work is its humor, speed and the high quality of its writing. McInerney is a very funny writer with a penchant for snappy similes. A woman's voice "is like the New Jersey State Anthem played through an electric shaver," another woman is "the sexual equivalent of fast food," another has "a heart like a twelve-minute egg."
What also makes the novel work is the strength of its indictment. For despite its humor, "Bright Lights, Big City" also illustrates the current and fashionable values of the society, shows the hero trapped within their superficiality and makes a judgment about those values. And even though the novel is very contemporary, showing the decadence and wastefulness of the trendsetting set, it is still quite traditional, with a lonely young hero seeking a decent young woman to fall in love with. McInerney handles this mixture very well, giving the hero just enough self-irony to keep him from lying too profoundly to himself and supplying those necessary but useless madcap actions with which he strikes back at the world: such as setting loose a ferret in the department of factual verification in the New Yorker-like magazine and trying to disrupt a fashion show to get even with his fashion model wife.
McInerney is an extremely gifted young writer, and it is a pleasure to see the beginning of a career like his. One waits with anticipation for whatever comes next.