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Slave of New York

He holes up in a Beekman Place sublet to write a screenplay called Paint It Black, about some downtown–New York artists who suddenly become famous. He knows his subject—finding himself treated less as a writer these days than as a literary celebrity, with "Page Six" and People chronicling his habits. He makes a friend of Bret Easton Ellis, the author of Less Than Zero, and throws a party for him at the Tunnel that is filmed by West 57th Street; the CBS program is doing a piece on McInerney. Critics join in by grouping Ellis, McInerney, and Tama Janowitz into a literary circle, with editor pals Gary Fisketjon and Morgan Entrekin along for the ride.

"We are a sort of galaxy of our own," McInerney is quoted as saying of himself and his friends. (He disputes the quote as being inaccurate and taken out of context.) Still, he's seen and photographed frequently at Nell's, the Canal Bar, and other hot spots, often with model Marla Hanson, herself an instant celebrity following a disfiguring knife attack on her two years ago.

But he is also trying to write. Failing to get a new novel under way in New York—he has moved several times, even trying the Chelsea Hotel—he flees to the sanctuary of Yaddo, the upstate literary retreat. There he firmly establishes the new voice he is looking for. It is that of twenty-year-old Alison Poole. She is something like the women he has gotten to know well in his three years in the limelight: pretty, rich, blonde—and a heavy user of cocaine. She speaks in the dialect known as Valley Girl. She punctuates her sentences with "God," "like," and "so." McInerney hears this girl telling a story in his mind and writes a short story for Esquire in her voice. After the trip to Yaddo, he has finished a novel.

Today, he is waiting nervously in his West Village apartment for that novel, Story of My Life, to come out—a book that is dedicated, simply, "For Gary." Financially speaking, he has little to be nervous about: His publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, is spending $100,000 to promote the book, with a ten-city author's tour. More than 100,000 copies at $16.95 have been printed; it will be McInerney's first full-scale hardcover book, but selling even a moderate percentage of the first printing will be enough to keep it on the best-seller list for several weeks. And a bidding floor has already been established for the paperback rights; one major paperback publisher has offered $350,000 for those rights, a huge sum by book-world standards—and enough to guarantee that Atlantic Monthly will at least break even and perhaps turn a substantial profit.

Still, he is as nervous as he was in 1984 when he was waiting for Bright Lights, Big City to come out. Then, he was a part-time clerk at a Syracuse liquor store; just publishing his novel was enough to make him happy. Selling more than half a million copies made him happy and rich.

This time, something far more important is at stake. He is making a grab for a place in literary history, and to get that, Jay McInerney knows he needs more than a best-seller. He needs to have written, if not a great book, at least a very good one.

'It's a very good book. It has a very consistent voice and is both very dark and very funny. It's a slight book—I mean, it's not great literature in that sense. But I think it's exciting and I liked it."

Not exactly book-jacket material but an honest assessment of Story of My Life from Bret Easton Ellis one lazy July afternoon over sodas at Metropolis. Ellis, only 24, has already experienced harsher critical treatment than McInerney. His second novel, The Rules of Attraction, got trashed by most major critics and became part of what Time magazine called "Yuppie Lit" in a scathing review by R. Z. Sheppard that began:

"If a handful of writers fall in together at a downtown night-club, do they make a literary noise if there is no journalist around to hear them?"

Sheppard called Bright Lights "as deep as a Jacuzzi bath." Coverage of McInerney, Ellis, Janowitz, and a few others went from relatively benign "Page Six" items on their social habits to savage critical essays in several magazines, including McInerney's old place of employment, The New Yorker.

McInerney took those comments harder than Ellis did; he is, in Ellis's opinion, "too sensitive" to the comments of outsiders and critics.

"Jay will call me and say, 'Did you read what they wrote about us today?' and he'll be so upset he'll lose a day's work," Ellis says. "I try to tell him it doesn't matter, but he takes a lot of it personally."


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