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Last Year's Model

Jay McInerney's "Model Behavior" is a retelling of a certain eighties novel about Manhattan high life -- but with book critics as villains. Mere coincidence?

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Model Behavior
BY JAY MCINERNEY
(Knopf; 275 pages; $24)

In Jay McInerney's Model Behavior, a novel that comes packaged in one volume with several short stories, all under one banner, nothing happens until the last few pages, when suddenly too much happens. This routine satire of Manhattan partygoing that might have been titled Absolut Breeze is abruptly capped off with deaths and disfigurements that come less as a shock than as an impertinence. The narrator's sister is slashed with a razor. His closest friend is shot and killed. It's a tossed-off, cocktail-hour apocalypse -- the equivalent of a straight-bourbon nightcap after an evening of Chablis spritzers -- that leaves the reader nastily hung over and asking a question: What the hell just happened?

No reviewer wants to knock McInerney, if only because he's been knocked so roundly before, but Model Behavior wears a sort of kick me sign on its perky, wagging butt. The novel pre-emptively knocks itself. First, it's Bright Lights, Big City all over again, and not a reworking but a virtual copy. Only the clubs and designer labels have changed. Clever young man hung up on willowy model (Philomena, she's called this time) and accompanied by way-cool buddy (Jeremy, a brilliant short-story writer) is wasting his life and talent working at a magazine (CiaoBella!) instead of buckling down to his art (screenwriting).

For Connor McKnight, the narrator, who addresses the reader now and then from Bright Lights's trademark second-person perspective ("The Name of this Party Is the Party You Have Been to Six Hundred Times Already"), the challenge is to shape up and get real, of course, and the only surprise in the story is that he doesn't quite. Otherwise, the book's a Hong Kong counterfeit; same cut, identical cloth, but weaker seams.

McInerney leaves little doubt that he's repeating himself on purpose, but the mystery is why? To tweak his critics? Working alongside Connor at CiaoBella! is one Kevin Shipley, a dour book reviewer and walking aggregate of every cliché ever spoken about such loathsome fops. He hates everything: youth, fun, beauty, dazzle. He hates writers. Indeed, as proof of his bilious constitution, he slaps down Jeremy's book of stories, Walled-In, by comparing it to the work of one Jay McInerney. The real-life critics at the New York Times are mentioned, too -- the insufferable twits -- and the very profession is mocked repeatedly, in the most familiar ways. It's even implied that poor Jeremy's demise is somehow the result of cruel reviews.

The only thing wrong with these in-joke digs at those who have failed to take McInerney seriously is the book that contains them, which isn't much of a book. (If you're going to throw down the gauntlet to your critics, the gauntlet ought to have some zing behind it.) Chunkified into separately titled mini-chapters that are sometimes only a paragraph long, Model Behavior has no momentum, just a jerky, teletypelike rattle. Party. Cab ride. Epiphany. Cab ride. Dinner. The dialogue, too, feels like piecework, as if the bons mots and ripostes have been assembled from a library of index cards. When Connor invites Jeremy for a drink and Jeremy declines because of an appointment with his analyst, Connor replies oh-so-naturally and spontaneously: "Ah yes, the Celtic and Hebraic approaches to sorrow and confusion, respectively."

There's a chance, a slim one, that Connor's flatfooted ad libs are intentional: a demonstration of his shrunken powers. Throwing himself away writing puff pieces about contemptible Hollywood celebrities, he's conceivably intended as a literary cautionary tale on the dangers of star-chasing and glossy hackwork.

It makes sense that his witty lines sound like Noël Coward translated into Japanese and back, and in fact Connor's editor says as much to him: "Don't try to be cynical. You don't do it very well." Unfortunately, it's almost impossible to believe that the book's lame cracks are lame on purpose, since even the purported genius, Jeremy, spouts them constantly. ("It's true," he says. "Publishers come and go, but agents are forever.") At one point, the sparkling Jeremy lampoons an Indian accent by pronouncing the word very "veddy." Connor, sadly, finds this highly amusing. Between this and the knowing line about Hebraicism, a tinge of dopey racism enters the book.

Whatever it is that Model Behavior is mocking -- the New York lit life, show business, Jay McInerney's unfairly maligned oeuvre -- it doesn't mock it enough. Plenty of cheeks are pinched, but none are slapped. The effect is to prove the author's bona fides as a with-it member of the café crowd that's supposedly being scorned. The editors, writers, and pretty faces who table-talk away the nights in recognizable downtown hot spots are clearly based on actual "Page Six"ers, and their outfits are fully captioned in the manner of Harper's Bazaar fashion spreads. Tina Brown appears, glimpsed across a restaurant; Anna Wintour forms the basis of a punch line; and a certain young male short-story writer whose name is hardly cultural currency gets mentioned as an object of female lust.

And then, out of nowhere, the violence and death. In a peculiarly tasteless borrowing from his autobiography, McInerney has Connor's sister attacked in the same way as the author's well-known ex-girlfriend, the model Marla Hanson. I'm all for writers who write about what they know, at least in principle, but there's something about the handling of the incident that cries out for artistic impeachment hearings. No. 1, the assault is thrown away -- it's merely a detail in the dénouement. No. 2, the author awards Connor, his not-that-alter alter-ego, a heroic, chivalrous role in the melée that's repulsively self-serving. No. 3, and vilest of all, the razor wounds are compared to, of all things, a successful medical treatment -- a lancing of psychic wounds with one swift gash. "Her parotid gland may require further scrutiny, but the truth is she's perversely pleased, given her lifelong distrust of pulchritude, to sport a slight disfigurement: a raised pink crescent below her earlobe."

Seldom has the game of guess-who's-who been played so coarsely for such trivial stakes. McInerney has reason to fear his critics.


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