Slave of New York

From the September 5, 1988 issue of New York Magazine.

’F. Scott Fitzgerald is such a cautionary tale,” Jay McInerney was saying. In front of him on a small side table at the Lion’s Head were a pair of medium-rare lamb chops, a glass of 1982 Margaux, and a microcassette recorder. He wore a fashionable yellow-and-black sport jacket with shoulder pads over a tight black T-shirt. After a time, he gave in to the heat on this beastly Sunday night and removed his jacket.

“People are waiting for me to pull a kind of a Fitzgerald in my life and die of an overdose,” he said. “Or to just burn out, basically. Which is what people believe the myth of Fitzgerald is—that he was seduced by this world that he wrote about, and that he ultimately couldn’t separate his life and his art.”

A waitress walked by and asked if either of us was Randy Klein. He had a telephone call. “I’m glad it isn’t for me,” McInerney said to the waitress before turning back to his thoughts.

“I don’t want to die at the age of 44,” said McInerney, who is now 33 years old. “I don’t want to have my life fall apart for my work. I read a Fitzgerald biography a couple weeks ago. Very scary. But also somehow for Fitzgerald it all sort of fell apart when he was 30.”

McInerney stopped to laugh at that. “He’d finished The Great Gatsby,” he went on, “and that’s when he really started—Zelda really went over the hill and he took eight years to write his next book.”

He pushed ahead without the slightest pause to what it was about Fitzgerald that so captivated Jay McInerney now, in the final hours before the publication of his third novel, Story of My Life. To the reason he found it so important to read about Fitzgerald and learn something from his painful experiences.

“There’s a way people sort of use the myth of Fitzgerald,” McInerney said, running his fingers through his thick, wavy brown hair, almost as though pulling on it helped him think more clearly. “The way people can feel so easily superior to a guy who was a moth attracted to a flame and didn’t know how to handle his life.

“On the other hand,” he said, “the more you like Fitzgerald, the more you have to say—unless you’re a self-destructive personality—that you’d like to learn from Fitzgerald’s example and not follow directly in his footsteps. You know?”

McInerney has spent much of the past few years—in the aftermath of his sudden, explosive stardom in the fall of 1984 with his first novel, Bright Lights, Big City—searching the landscape for role models, looking for examples he could measure his own personal and professional life against. Sitting in one of New York’s last remaining literary saloons, a restaurant he had chosen for this encounter, McInerney seemed deeply concerned with those who came before and how he might be viewed in their shadow.

For instance, Truman Capote—whose 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s is cited by McInerney’s friends as an important influence on him. “Clearly, Capote was someone—I think more clearly than Fitzgerald—who for whatever reason ultimately ended up caretaking his celebrity more carefully than his talent. It’s a horrible example, and I feel in my more paranoid moments that’s what people want—that people are ready for me to do that myself.”

Or Norman Mailer, whom McInerney describes as a pal: “I like the fact that he has continually flown headlong into the storm and has continually confounded expectations about what a writer is supposed to do. Running for mayor. Making movies… . I feel like because I never got the option to be a demure, private person as a writer that I can’t help looking at Norman Mailer and saying, ‘Hey, he didn’t roll over and play dead.’ “

As he talked and talked into the night, McInerney kept coming back to expectations—those he had for himself, those set down for him by his predecessors, and those held by the literary and media establishments, which, to hear him tell it, have spent much of the past four years in his face.

“In our era,” McInerney said, his anger rising to the thought, “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 and you only get your picture taken by Tom Victor [a top book-jacket photographer] when your book is coming out.

“Jonathan Yardley [book critic for the Washington Post] said about myself and a bunch of other writers that writers should be read and not seen, we should not be aware of the personalities of the writer, and he should just disappear behind his work and blah blah blah.

“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 midwesterncollege 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.

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.”

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.”

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.”

One September day in 1984, Jay McInerney flew from his $250-a-month student apartment in Syracuse to a $250-a-night hotel bungalow in Hollywood.

He traveled first-class, of course; Columbia Pictures was picking up the tab and putting him up at the Chateau Marmont to write the first draft of a screenplay of Bright Lights, Big City. At the airport to greet him was a beautiful white stretch limousine.

“I’d never been to Los Angeles,” he said. “It really blew my mind. And then I wrote the first draft and they said, ‘Great, but we have to punch up the third act.’ So I came to town for another meeting, and I was greeted by a Lincoln Town Car. And then the second draft went in and it needed one more rewrite, so I got to the airport, L.A.X., and there was no car waiting for me.

“So I called up the studio and they said, ‘Why don’t you take a cab in from the airport, Jay, and we’ll reimburse you.’ Then I wrote the third draft and never heard from anybody again.”

The irony is that several directors and screenplays later, the final version of Bright Lights, Big City is a lot like that first draft he pounded out in six days at the Chateau Marmont—enough for the Writers Guild to award McInerney sole writing credit, even though director James Bridges claimed considerable input and fought for co-writing credit.

McInerney will not publicly criticize the Michael J. Fox movie—which puts him in a minority among critics and moviegoers—but after listening to him talk about it at length, it’s clear that what he likes about the movie is that it made his book look better by comparison.

“As the author of a book,” he asked one evening, after describing at length the ups and downs of his involvement in the movie’s development, “would you be really sorry if they started every review saying it’s not as good as the book? Do you know the name of the guy who wrote [the original novel] The Graduate? I rest my case.”

THE SECRET OF HIS SUCCESS: “I’m trying to work out a personalequilibrium between the life and the work,” he says. “I’m too young tobe a one-note kind of guy. I have a more symphonic mind.”

One more thing about Jay McInerney and the movie business: What he’d really like to do is direct.

As much as he fights the image of a literary celebrity, Jay McInerney cannot seem to help being one.

These days he lives in a West 11th Street apartment that once belonged to the novelist Robert Stone and before that to Dennis Hopper. He has an unlisted telephone number that he frequently changes and zealously guards, although his answering machine does provide up-to-the-minute information on his whereabouts: “I’m still somewhere in the 212 area code,” it reports one day. At 12:45 P.M. the next day, it says, “I’ve gone to get a bite to eat and I’ll be back by one.” At this moment, it says that he is in Europe until the end of the month, which he is—promoting the publication of Story of My Life in England.

He is, at this writing, still married to his second wife, Merry, to whom he dedicated his first two novels; she lives in Ann Arbor, and he lives here. The Daily News’s Billy Norwich recently wrote that McInerney’s wife had started a divorce action—”That’s news to me,” McInerney says. At various times during the past year, he has been seen with Marla Hanson. He has been a regular at the Canal Bar, the Union Square Café, and M.K.—and not a regular at the Lion’s Head or Ye Waverly Inn or the White Horse Tavern, among the places he suggested as an interview location. He dresses in the standard New York version of casual hip—a stylish sport jacket and T-shirt. (On his way to see M. Butterfly one night recently, in the middle of the scorching August heat wave, he wore a glen-plaid suit and black T-shirt.)

He owns a shotgun, which he uses for hunting grouse, and gets angry at “precious urbanites” who oppose using guns for sport. He also likes to drink, and it would appear that his current favorite beverage is Absolut on the rocks with a twist of lime. (“I used to drink Stolichnaya,” he says, “until I was with some Russian writers and they said they preferred Swedish vodka.”)

What seems to irk McInerney the most about celebrity are the pictures and gossip items and captions: From People to Women’s Wear Daily, McInerney has become a fixture on the paparazzi circuit in the past four years. Still, until recently, he has not hesitated to go where he knows photographers will follow—nightclubs, parties, movie openings, and benefit dinners. “I’m actually starting to not go to places where I know I’ll get spotted,” he says. “I’m tired of it all.” He is also bitter about incorrect items on the gossip pages; one item in particular, a tabloid story that had Gary Fisketjon asking him for a rewrite of his novel, caused him anguish. “It was completely false,” he says.

It was the possibility of misrepresentation—or, at the very least, overemphasis—of such “facts” that prompted McInerney to refuse at first to cooperate on this article, even though it would coincide with the publication of his book.

“Jay just wants to focus on his work,” explained Fisketjon in July.

Once he finally changed his mind—his only stated proviso being “I won’t talk about restaurants or girls”—the question became:

Why is Jay McInerney so afraid?

What, after all, is so terrible about being a literary celebrity? Is it so bad to be invited everywhere and waved through the velvet ropes? Isn’t it a thrill to meet all the authors you’ve respected and the actors you’ve admired? And doesn’t all of it mean something rather important—that a Jay McInerney book will be read by far more people than one by a less famous novelist?

“I feel that there’s a lot of would-be guardians of the culture who think that high-minded literary purpose and the life that gets chronicled in the gossip columns, that these two things are incompatible,” McInerney answered late one afternoon at the White Horse, over a vodka. “Indeed, when you look at someone like Truman Capote, you have to say, ‘Jesus Christ, maybe they are.’

“I’m in a period of reevaluation. On the one hand, I want to say, ‘F— you, I want to drink as much of it in as I can and process it through my own body and mind, because it’s been given to me and because it’s a unique vantage point.’ At this moment, a certain amount of opportunity to live and observe and slip and fall has been given to me. And it is grist for my mill. And it is exactly the kind of grist that seems to fire me up.

“On the other hand, I’m trying to work out a personal equilibrium between the life and the work that ensures that the work remains good and also that I don’t lose—that the image that builds up around me isn’t too easy to turn into a parody. I don’t want to do that to myself. I’m too young to be a one-note kind of guy when I have a more symphonic mind.

“For me to move to Vermont and build a wall around my house—number one, it’s not me. It is Salinger. Number two, what the hell am I going to write about? That’s the danger. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote.

“But you can’t retire at 33.”

On the mid-August afternoon that Jay McInerney is boarding a plane for Europe, a shirtless man on the corner of 57th Street and Broadway has established a brisk street-level book business. He is new to the corner, trying to compete with the mighty Coliseum Books by undercutting the prices. With his wizened face and well-built torso, he is a bizarre study in contrasts.

So are his books.

For $10, you can get an advance copy of Story of My Life. God knows how it got there; copies have just arrived in bookstores. But there it is, lying on the sidewalk—and for all the Jay McInerney hype, it sits there hour after hour, unsold at its bargain price. Oddly enough, it sits right alongside The Great Gatsby.

Would it pain McInerney to see his book lying unsold? Or would it gratify him to know that he is sharing the sidewalk with Fitzgerald?

Like McInerney, F. Scott Fitzgerald was obsessed with himself and the times he lived in—an era of parties and passion he dubbed the Jazz Age.

“It bore him up,” Fitzgerald once wrote of himself and the era he chronicled, “flattered him and gave him more money than he had dreamed of, simply for telling people that he felt as they did.”

Slave of New York