And yet, Ellis points out, McInerney has written precisely the book to ensure that those attacks continue. He's right—Story of My Life will further infuriate the critics who have argued that McInerney is a writer who has nothing of substance to say.
Like Bright Lights, the new novel is short on plot and long on voice and style. It covers approximately a month in the life of Alison Poole, an aspiring actress whose wealthy father has been supporting her funky New York life-style—consisting mainly of an acting class here and there, dinner at Indochine, champagne at Nell's, and considerable quantities of cocaine. There's enough cocaine in Story of My Life to keep McInerney's Bolivian soldiers marching for months.
Alison Poole narrates the entire 188 pages of Story of My Life; the intended effect is to be inside this girl's mind, hearing her tell her story as though she were onstage. (A Cleveland actress was so taken by the voice, in fact, that she performed the entire Esquire piece as a monologue last year.) It comes complete with every nuance of casual speech, and early reviews have remarked on McInerney's successful rendition of a woman's voice.
Alison, of course, is extremely blonde and pretty—so is almost everyone in the book—and her boyfriends have names like Dean and Skip. Her girlfriends, who play a more integral role in the story, have names like Francesca and Didi. They have even worse cocaine addictions than Alison's; if the plot turns on anything, it's coke.
McInerney uses no quotation marks in the book; all of the voices are meant to be filtered through Alison's. And what makes hers distinctive is not just how she talks but what she talks incessantly about: sex. And sex is perhaps the most provocative subject available to a male author writing in a woman's voice.
RISKY BUSINESS: With Story of My Life, McInerney is making a grab for a place in literary history. He needs more than a best-seller. He needs to have written, if not a great book, at least a very good one.
"Poor Dean is like, dying of a monster hard-on," McInerney writes of an Alison Poole first date. "After a few hours it feels like something carved out of stone and heated over the fire. I'm wondering if maybe I should help him out a little but I think oral sex on the first date is pretty rude, like I'm almost always turned off when some guy I hardly know goes down on me.
"Under the circumstances I should do something for Dean but the thing is, I really want him inside me.
"Please,. I go. Please. He's on top of me. Kissing and dry humping.
"Alison, he moans. Don't.
"I can't stand it, I go.
"I can't either."
The book will raise some other questions—questions McInerney doesn't like but the kind asked of authors as prominent as Hemingway and Joyce. Is this book a roman à clef? And if so, who are these people—really?
The only published speculation on the subject came in June in the Daily News, when gossip columnist Billy Norwich carefully tried to sidestep the novel's roman à clef aspects but nonetheless raised the issue by identifying possible real-life models for the characters: Lisa Druck, whom Norwich called "a onetime after-hours pal of the author," is generally thought to be at least an inspiration for Alison Poole; those who know the aspiring actress say their voices are similar. Other names linked to characters—and part of McInerney's New York social circle—include Angela Janklow, the daughter of agent Mort Janklow and, until her recent move to Los Angeles, a fixture on the New York party and nightclub circuits, and Amy Lumet, a daughter of movie director Sidney Lumet's.
Janklow would only confirm that she and McInerney have spent many nights in the downtown world of the book. She spoke long and flatteringly of the writer, whom she considers a good friend. "Jay is a very odd bird," she said. "He doesn't want to be perceived as uni-dimensional. Yaddo, he went there not as a rehab but as a serious writer. Jay is not a dandy. He doesn't want to be perceived of as a dandy. He's not! He's not on a rampage, out to get people. He's not Truman Capote, you know?"
Still, McInerney is prepared to be asked the questions over and over: Is it real? Did it happen?
"I have complete confidence," McInerney said, "because I know the genesis of all the material in the book. I'm anticipating some of that kind of speculation, but I'm utterly confident of not having any lawsuits on my hands. The book is a fully imagined work of fiction. On the other hand, it's not to say that I didn't make use of. . . ."
He paused. "That's why I live in New York," he said finally. "Mine is not an autonomous imagination."