From the September 5, 1988 issue of New York Magazine.
'F. Scott Fitzgerald is such a cautionary tale," Jay McInerney was saying. In front of him on a small side table at the Lion's Head were a pair of medium-rare lamb chops, a glass of 1982 Margaux, and a microcassette recorder. He wore a fashionable yellow-and-black sport jacket with shoulder pads over a tight black T-shirt. After a time, he gave in to the heat on this beastly Sunday night and removed his jacket.
"People are waiting for me to pull a kind of a Fitzgerald in my life and die of an overdose," he said. "Or to just burn out, basically. Which is what people believe the myth of Fitzgerald is—that he was seduced by this world that he wrote about, and that he ultimately couldn't separate his life and his art."
A waitress walked by and asked if either of us was Randy Klein. He had a telephone call. "I'm glad it isn't for me," McInerney said to the waitress before turning back to his thoughts.
"I don't want to die at the age of 44," said McInerney, who is now 33 years old. "I don't want to have my life fall apart for my work. I read a Fitzgerald biography a couple weeks ago. Very scary. But also somehow for Fitzgerald it all sort of fell apart when he was 30."
McInerney stopped to laugh at that. "He'd finished The Great Gatsby," he went on, "and that's when he really started—Zelda really went over the hill and he took eight years to write his next book."
He pushed ahead without the slightest pause to what it was about Fitzgerald that so captivated Jay McInerney now, in the final hours before the publication of his third novel, Story of My Life. To the reason he found it so important to read about Fitzgerald and learn something from his painful experiences.
"There's a way people sort of use the myth of Fitzgerald," McInerney said, running his fingers through his thick, wavy brown hair, almost as though pulling on it helped him think more clearly. "The way people can feel so easily superior to a guy who was a moth attracted to a flame and didn't know how to handle his life.
"On the other hand," he said, "the more you like Fitzgerald, the more you have to say—unless you're a self-destructive personality—that you'd like to learn from Fitzgerald's example and not follow directly in his footsteps. You know?"
McInerney has spent much of the past few years—in the aftermath of his sudden, explosive stardom in the fall of 1984 with his first novel, Bright Lights, Big City—searching the landscape for role models, looking for examples he could measure his own personal and professional life against. Sitting in one of New York's last remaining literary saloons, a restaurant he had chosen for this encounter, McInerney seemed deeply concerned with those who came before and how he might be viewed in their shadow.
For instance, Truman Capote—whose 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany's is cited by McInerney's friends as an important influence on him. "Clearly, Capote was someone—I think more clearly than Fitzgerald—who for whatever reason ultimately ended up caretaking his celebrity more carefully than his talent. It's a horrible example, and I feel in my more paranoid moments that's what people want—that people are ready for me to do that myself."
Or Norman Mailer, whom McInerney describes as a pal: "I like the fact that he has continually flown headlong into the storm and has continually confounded expectations about what a writer is supposed to do. Running for mayor. Making movies. . . . I feel like because I never got the option to be a demure, private person as a writer that I can't help looking at Norman Mailer and saying, 'Hey, he didn't roll over and play dead.' "
As he talked and talked into the night, McInerney kept coming back to expectations—those he had for himself, those set down for him by his predecessors, and those held by the literary and media establishments, which, to hear him tell it, have spent much of the past four years in his face.
"In our era," McInerney said, his anger rising to the thought, "the model of literary behavior is that you teach at a midwestern college and you talk about Kafka a lot. You wear a tweed jacket and you only get your picture taken by Tom Victor [a top book-jacket photographer] when your book is coming out.
"Jonathan Yardley [book critic for the Washington Post] said about myself and a bunch of other writers that writers should be read and not seen, we should not be aware of the personalities of the writer, and he should just disappear behind his work and blah blah blah.