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Slave of New York

"And I just want to say, you know, 'C'mon, guys, you want to know what a writer is? What a writer can do? Look at me. Look at Harold Brodkey. Look at Robert Stone. Look at me. Look at Mailer. Completely different models. Don't tell us what we should f---ing do. Why shouldn't fiction be all over the goddamned map? I think somebody ought to be doing what I'm doing.'

"So I'm doing it."

It was four years ago this month that all the excitement began: Suddenly the name Jay McInerney signified the essence of hip and the media anointed him the J. D. Salinger of the eighties.

Gary Fisketjon, a 29-year-old book editor on the rise at Random House, had been given the go-ahead to start a tiny paperback imprint called Vintage Contemporaries—and with it the opportunity to publish, at low cost, a series of reprints and an occasional first novel that might not otherwise make it into print. The first of those was to be the debut of Jay McInerney, also 29, an aspiring novelist living in Syracuse and Fisketjon's best friend since they were at Williams College together in the mid-seventies.

For years, the two neophytes had been dreaming of the day when this would happen—back when McInerney was the resident poet at Williams and Fisketjon the resident short-story writer (their first meeting was so momentous that Fisketjon felt compelled to throw a lighted cigarette into McInerney's beer). Back when they drove across America in McInerney's beat-up Volkswagen Beetle for six months in search of Jack Kerouac's spirit. Back when they shared an illegal sublet on East 5th Street and had such loud parties that their neighbors threw M80s down the fire escape to make them stop.

The story of Bright Lights, Big City has taken on almost mythic proportions: What young novelist has not imagined the same lightning bolt striking him? McInerney, a struggling writer without a job, stumbles home to his tiny apartment at four in the morning, after another late, late night of club-hopping. He hears a voice in his head; it is speaking to him in the second person, though it is unmistakably McInerney's voice. He scribbles out one hilarious paragraph, and no one who has read Bright Lights can dispute its electric charge:

RULES OF THE GAME: "In our era," McInerney says, his anger rising, "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."

"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 nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. . . . Your brain at this moment is composed of brigades of tiny Bolivian soldiers. They are tired and muddy from their long march through the night. There are holes in their boots and they are hungry. They need to be fed. They need the Bolivian Marching Powder."

A year later, he has finished; and in September of 1984, the paperback catches fire. Everyone is talking about him—and buying his book. After one month, the entire 15,000-copy first printing sells out. New York puts him in its "Fast Track" column. A Wall Street Journal headline picks up on the theme and declares him A FIRST NOVELIST ON THE FAST TRACK. Editors at Esquire (who'd been turning down an unknown McInerney's article ideas for years) ask him to write a profile of Mick Jagger. George Will observes that Bright Lights is "the Michelob beer commercial re-invented as literature," adding that he meant that as a compliment. Novelist William Kotzwinkle, in The New York Times Book Review, says McInerney "has wandered Manhattan with its shadows taking shape in his soul."

Almost as quickly, however, a backlash begins. Times book critic Michiko Kakutani dismisses Bright Lights in two paragraphs, calling it "facile," "slight," and "a jangled heap of grammatical contortions," and concludes that the novel "never quite lives up to its author's considerable talents." And already, press clippings start to portray the young novelist as glitzy and superficial—ready to move immediately to Hollywood to cash in his chips.

To its credit, though, Hollywood catches on to Bright Lights before the general public. Before the book arrives in stores, McInerney sells the movie rights to the producer Jerry Weintraub, who hires Joel (St. Elmo's Fire) Schumacher to direct, Tom Cruise to star, and McInerney to write the screenplay. McInerney stays at the Chateau Marmont and writes three drafts before he's removed from the project.

He returns to New York the conquering hero. He sits down to finish a novel about Japan that he's been unable to write until now—a semi-autobiographical story of a young American in Kyoto (McInerney was there on a Princeton fellowship after he finished college). It is called Ransom, and it is a failure; critics who were kind to Bright Lights say this is a more ambitious but less successful work, and suggest that McInerney may have less promise than originally thought. McInerney suddenly is on the defensive.


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