Jay McInerney has always had his heroes, and they have never been athletes or movie stars or kings. They have always been writers.
When he was a small child living in Vancouver, British Columbia, his hero was Jack London; then he wanted to be a fur trapper like the men in London's stories. By the time he was a teenager, his hero was Dylan Thomas; then he wanted to be a poet, a writer with a starry, romantic vision of the world. By the time McInerney reached Williams College, his heroes were Hegel and Socrates—"back when Socrates was Socrates," he says firmly, "not just some dumb mouthpiece for Plato."
For many years, McInerney seemed to have more heroes than friends—mostly in his first fourteen years, when his father was being transferred to different locales for Crane Paper. As McInerney now puts it, "I spent my time in the library so it wouldn't be so obvious that I didn't have a whole lot of friends." Finally, as McInerney was about to enter high school, his father settled in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, as an executive at Crane—and by that time, Jay had gone to eighteen schools.
"I only got kicked out of two of them," he says with pride.
His two younger brothers both ended up in business—Mark, 25, is an investment banker at Morgan Guaranty Trust, and Chris, 31, works for James River Paper Company. His mother died seven years ago; his father still lives in Pitts-field. For a while, Jay toyed with economics; he ended up only one course shy of an economics degree at Williams, opting for a major in philosophy instead. "It seemed more practical for what I wanted to be," he says.
At Williams, he found his identity as a writer—or, more specifically, as a poet. To a girl he dated in his freshman year McInerney wrote a dozen sonnets. Gradually his poetry grew more complex and adult; by his senior year, he had advanced to erotic themes, as in a favorite of Fisketjon's called "Two Women and a Tangerine." To Fisketjon—who'd transferred to Williams as a junior from the University of San Francisco—McInerney was the campus Don Juan; to McInerney, Fisketjon was merely jealous of McInerney's relationship with a particular pretty girl Fisketjon admired.
The two rivals became best friends, and their trip cross-country after college cemented things. McInerney was already off on his Kerouac crusade when he was called to rescue Fisketjon from romantic difficulties in the Midwest—at which point Fisketjon climbed aboard for the rest of the trip. They went to Mississippi and tried to climb over a wall into William Faulkner's house. (McInerney fell off.) They had most of their money stolen. They slept on couches or in the Volkswagen.
After six months, the trip came to an end in San Francisco.
"We were living on these guys' couches," McInerney recalled, "and we had no money and we were thinking about getting jobs. Gary got sick, so he just went home. I tried to get a job at the paper in San Francisco. It didn't work out. I was just being a layabout. This guy gave me A Fan's Notes, by Fred Exley, which I'd never even heard of. I read it and it was one of those really pivotal books for me. There are some books you read that just nudge you a little further along in your sense of what the language can do."
Armed with Exley's inspiration, McInerney was determined to become a novelist. He went to Japan on the fellowship, then returned to New York—where Fisketjon had gotten a job as a junior book editor at Random House. In short order, McInerney married his first wife, found an apartment, and got a fact-checking job at The New Yorker. Within a year, he'd lost all three. But by then he'd met another inspiration—a short-story writer named Raymond Carver, whose work he'd admired since Williams. And Carver found much to admire in this young man.
For McInerney, Carver was the ultimate hero. "He just showed up at my door on Jones Street one day when Gary sent him over to meet me," McInerney was recalling a few days after Carver's death in early August, "and we just really hit it off." The two men couldn't have had more different sensibilities: Carver wrote about a blue-collar milieu totally absent from McInerney's fiction, and he preferred the short-story format, while McInerney had moved from poetry to novels.
Perhaps because of those differences, the two writers formed a bond that was to last until Carver's death from cancer at the age of 50. And in 1981, Carver sensed that all his young protégé needed was time to write and a little distance from the world he had become immersed in—that of Berlin, the Mudd Club, Odeon, and drugs. So Carver got him a graduate fellowship at Syracuse University, where he was teaching and writing. Under Carver's wing, McInerney sat down to finish that novel he'd begun at four in the morning—the one he had decided to name after a Jimmy Reed song, "Bright Lights, Big City."