They ran Jay McInerney out to Hollywood a month or two ago, quite a change for a 29-year-old first novelist whose last job in publishing was the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts at Random House and whose job at the time the studio called was working three days a week at a liquor store in Syracuse. Books about New York City nightlife and a club called the Lizard Lounge and a drug coyly referred to as Bolivian Marching Powder must be very smart these days -- at least McInerney's is.
Six weeks after the publication date, "Bright Lights, Big City" is into its third printing, and it recently made The Village Voice best-seller list, a local weather vane if nothing else. The Times has reviewed it twice -- so what if the first time it was called slight, do you know how many novels sink without a trace in this town? Esquire magazine determined McInerney so hip it asked him to follow Mick Jagger around. And then there was Hollywood. Yeah, in fact, Jay McInerney will be writing the screenplay of his first novel for Hollywood.
"A movie deal with Columbia Pictures with Jerry Weintraub, and, um, needless to say, we tried to get some so-called back-end money and a few points," he says, as if he's been in the business all his life.
A 20-degree shift in tone, a little cynicism creeping in:
"I'm not sure writers ever actually see their points, but at least I can say I got them -- I can watch the figures, assuming that the movie ever goes into production. The odds are terrible for these sorts of things."
A 160-degree shift in tone:
"I went out there the month before the book came out -- it suddenly hit Hollywood in a way that was very peculiar to me. I'm not sure, but I think it all started when one assistant producer read the book and flew to Syracuse and then people said, 'What's this guy doing flying to upstate New York?' So then the book started going around. In Hollywood things happen very quickly" -- he laughs -- "and end very quickly too, but for a week I was the hottest writer in town. Now, you know, the honeymoon's over and the deal's made and undoubtedly other hot writers are staying at the Chateau Marmont at this very minute."
It's an interesting thing to watch, this tone change, McInerney at one moment the savvy man on the rise with that smooth, bored, "Well of course you know how it is" tone, two minutes later the astonished young writer standing on the side, amused and amazed by his success.
But then that's the dichotomy that makes McInerney McInerney and "Bright Lights, Big City" the book it is. There was a part of him, and of the unnamed hero of his book, that was very interested in style and status and the image of things, he says, and there was a part of him and of his hero that remained the observer, outside. Who saw the cocaine was killing him even as he did two more lines. Who thought his career as New Yorker fact checker was pretty silly, but continued to use the prestige of the magazine to pick up girls. Who thought the new wave New York clubs and the baldheaded girls with the tattoos on their scalps were crazy -- and kept right on rushing from one to the next.
"You're not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning . . ." the book begins.
And, at first glance, Jay McInerney is not. Former New York City publishing drone, recent Syracuse University graduate student in writing, he sits in his publisher's office pure uncut Prep -- the plain white shirt worn and indifferent to fashion, the loafers tasseled. He speaks of the mystique that drew him, after Williams and a Princeton fellowship in Japan, to Manhattan, and that pull was literary legend and New York legend -- the Algonquin and Dorothy Parker, a sizzling if public intellectual life. Recalling his jobs in New York, he is very aware of the literary buzz -- he was, for a spell, a reader of unsolicited manuscripts at Random House, the job William Styron describes at the beginning of "Sophie's Choice," he reminds you; he just interviewed E.L. Doctorow, and Doctorow had that job too.
But there was also a part of McInerney that was mad for style, hot to party. That had heard, in faraway and fashion-conscious Japan, of a weird new world of punk clubs, and had likened it to the energy of the '60s. He hungered for it as much as he hungered for the round table.
"The night life ain't no good life but it's my life," he laughs nervously. "No, I was never a nightclub person myself except for a brief period, when I was 24 or 25 . . . the sort of height of my club-crawling madness."
Tone change, from the personal to the mass market:
"I think one of the reasons that 'Bright Lights' is doing quite well is that a lot of people are attracted to the idea of getting past the doorman of a hot New York club and seeing what's inside. And I was young and that seemed to be a glamorous milieu -- going to a club at midnight, being able to afford it, having enough cocaine to be able to stay up till 4 in the morning. I no longer think it's the height of human aspiration, but at the time it seemed to be taken for granted among my friends as a great way to live."
He was never, he says, as far gone as his protagonist, who parties nightly, who needs dope to get going in the morning and to cool down at night, but there was a time when he would go out three or four nights a week, doing the deadly substances. Like his protagonist, he was married briefly to a model, "the less said about it the better" but aaah, what a metaphor for the failure of style. Like his protagonist, he worked a deadly job and found it deadly dull -- though his hero is fired from his job at an unnamed magazine and, after 10 months at his job, McInerney quit.
"I think most good fiction begins in autobiography and ends somewhere else altogether," he says. "My mother died of cancer and the character in the book's mother died of cancer, but I did not react to my mother's death the way the character did . . . I worked in the fact-checking department of The New Yorker and it was not very conducive to -- I really did not like fact checking at all. First of all I'm terrible at it. I didn't make any great blunders the way the character in the book did, but I found -- I was reading some great fiction, some of it was very good, and I'd be trying to find out if such and such a street really did exist in Prague and the spelling was correct and therefore saving the author from some terrible blunder and this was not the sort of thing that made my heart flow and expand. Temperamentally, I was not a fact checker."
Temperamentally, he was a party animal.
So what made McInerney run?
"That's a damn good question," he says. A pause, flipping through the mental Rolodex, perhaps, the growing up around the country and Europe as his father transferred between executive posts within Scott Paper. "I don't know. I started early. I guess I'm an energetic boy."
He considers, having been asked, the effect of a childhood in which he attended 18 schools before high school in Pittsfield, Mass.
"For me, it made me insecure down under but, like, incredibly eager to please and entertain and become one of the group on the surface. I think I just had to be more sociable than people who didn't move every six months -- otherwise I wouldn't have spoken to any other human being outside my family."
He considers, discussing a character in the book named Allagash, the temptor to the hero, the irresponsible fellow who's always dragging the hero off to another party, another club.
"If Tad Allagash works -- and everybody knows one -- it's a projection of some of the things I like in myself least . . . a projection of the most superficial and brutal but at the time most socially successful aspects of my own personality."
What made him run?
"Well, I think it's, you know, every morning after a night like that you'd say, 'That was really stupid, why do I do these things to myself?' and then the sun would go down and you'd go off . . ."
He's coming up on it.
"It's a kind of pursuit of an ideal state of sociability and mindless pleasure where somehow I thought, and lots of people I knew thought, that tonight was going to be the night when you were gonna meet the lover of your dreams and dazzle everyone with your conversation and get just high enough and attain some perfect state of intoxication that was, you know, like a prolonged orgasm. It's hedonism. It's just an elusive goal and it never really works and yet somehow I think that goal is shimmering out there, the perfect night, the perfect pickup where the person is charming and intelligent and sensible and beautiful and of course you always look in places where these people would never be, 'cause people like that are at home reading on the couch but probably wishing they were at the club."
He get this from the movies?
"Yeah, when I first came to New York I thought I was in a movie. I'd walk to the Plaza and I'd say, 'Now you're walking in front of the Plaza' and sort of imagine the cameras roll cause I'd seen it in a movie . . . and part of my image was the Algonquin round table and flashing repartee . . . dining late and drinking too much and being terribly witty and somehow you never consider the price of any of this, there's never any hideous morning after . . .
"The reason cocaine fits in with all we've been saying is that it's the exact metaphorical equivalent of the idea that tonight, if you go to just one more party, one more place, that's gonna be the one, that somehow will fulfill you, and every time you do one more line, you think just one more . . ."
Does one get such a terrible morning after with cocaine?
"Personally, I have never been able to do cocaine without drinking vast quantities of alcohol -- otherwise you go through the ceiling," he says. "And so you get the double whammy. Also, coke itself puts some pins in your head the next day, not to mention the sort of crap they adulterate it with."
How could he afford such stuff on his miserable publishing salary?
"Actually, The New Yorker pays quite well," he says.
There was never one particularly awful night that made him suddenly see the light, but there was, he says, one evening when he seriously began to doubt what he was doing with his life -- one low, as it turned out, which brought him to a high.
"I was in a club called Berlin," he says. "I had been staying out quite a couple of nights, and I was standing at the edge of the dance floor in terrible shape, and the friend I had come with had wandered off with a woman he had met on the dance floor. It was about 4 o'clock or so, the bar was closing, I felt like I was out of brain cells. I was scanning the dance floor with the idea of asking somebody to dance, with the idea of going home with her, and I just suddenly started talking to myself, said to myself something like, 'I'm not the kind of guy who would be in a place like this,' and then it just kind of hit me -- what am I doing here? Why have I been doing this? What do I think I am going to find night after night of this kind of abuse? I had no more money for drinks, I had no money for a cab, I was thinking it was going to be light soon and I would have to walk home and if I was lucky enough to get to sleep I would probably sleep till the sun went down the next day . . . The next morning, when I woke up, I wrote down what became the first paragraph of the novel."
The next month he was gone.
He moved, following the advice of writer Raymond Carver, whom he had met at Random House, upstate to Syracuse, where he studied under a writing fellowship. He met the woman who would become his wife, a PhD candidate in philosophy -- met her at a party in Syracuse, where he learned that she was of an old North Shore Boston family, Andover and Vassar, and, he admits, he had some leverage because he was one of the few people in the room who knew the significance of those three things, North Shore Boston, Andover, Vassar. Lived on his stipend and her teaching salary, very close to the bone, and, close to the bone, something significant happened.
"All my serious writing dates from the time I met my wife," he says. "I think she sort of got me settled enough and kicked my butt enough that I got in gear . . . All of a sudden I had this psychic balance. I realized just recently that 'Bright Lights, Big City,' the short story it came out of, and everything I ever wrote that I'm not ashamed of dates from after the time I met her."
He talks about the fellow that used to be -- his hero, himself.
"He confused glamor with beauty, style with substance . . . he had the right goals, but he got detoured by the mirage and the illusion that he mistook for legitimate goals . . . I don't think it's an uncommon mistake, the glitter for substance."
The perfect wave, by the way, the perfect party -- did he ever find it?
A somewhat self-conscious look before replying:
"For me, it's writing."