McInerney, Jay 1955–
McInerney, Jay 1955–
McInerney, Jay 1955–
PERSONAL: Surname is pronounced "Mac-in-er-ney"; born January 13, 1955, in Hartford, CT; son of John Barrett (a corporate executive) and Marilyn Jean (Murphy) McInerney; married second wife, Merry Reymond (a student), June 2, 1984 (marriage ended); married third wife, Helen Bransford (a jewelry designer), December 27, 1991; children: two. Education: Williams College, B.A., 1976; postgraduate study at Syracuse University. Hobbies and other interests: Travel, skiing, tennis, fly-fishing, karate, wine.
ADDRESSES: Agent—Amanda Urban, International Creative Management, 40 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019; and Deborah Rogers, Rogers, Coleridge & White Ltd., 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1JN, England.
CAREER: Novelist. Hunterdon County Democrat, Flemington, NJ, reporter, 1977; Time-Life, Inc., Osaka, Japan, textbook editor, 1978–79; New Yorker, New York, NY, fact checker, 1980; Random House (publishers), New York, NY, member of editorial staff, 1980–81; Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY, instructor in English, 1983; writer, 1983–.
MEMBER: Authors Guild, Authors League of America, PEN, Writers Guild.
AWARDS, HONORS: Princeton in Asia fellowship, 1977.
Bright Lights, Big City, Random House (New York, NY), 1984.
Ransom, Random House (New York, NY), 1985.
Story of My Life, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 1988.
Brightness Falls, Knopf (New York, NY), 1992.
The Last of the Savages, Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.
Model Behavior: A Novel and Seven Stories, Knopf (New York, NY), 1998.
The Good Life, Knopf (New York, NY), 2006.
Bright Lights, Big City (screenplay adaptation of McInerney's novel), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/United Artists, 1988.
(Author of introduction) Helen Mitsios, editor, New Japanese Voices: The Best Contemporary Fiction from Japan, Grove/Atlantic (New York, NY), 1992.
(Editor) Cowboys, Indians, and Commuters: The Penguin Book of New American Voices, Viking (New York, NY), 1994.
Bacchus and Me: Adventures in the Wine Cellar (non-fiction), Lyons (New York, NY), 2000.
How It Ended (short stories), Bloomsbury, 2001.
Contributor to Look Who's Talking, edited by Bruce Weber, Washington Square Press, 1986. Wine columnist for House and Garden.
ADAPTATIONS: Model Behavior was adapted to audio cassette, 1999.
SIDELIGHTS: Jay McInerney gained critical success and a reputation rarely won by a first-time novelist for his 1984 work Bright Lights, Big City. The story concerns an unnamed young man who works as a fact-checker during the day at a stodgy, respectable magazine—some reviewers noticed a resemblance to the New Yorker, where McInerney was employed as a fact-checker in 1980—but stays out all night abusing alcohol and cocaine at New York City's popular nightclubs. Disillusioned and trying to cope with the death of his mother and his divorce from a shallow model, the narrator carouses with his friend and devil's advocate, Tad Allagash, who "envies him for his ability to find drugs and girls, to get into hip mischief and yet hold down a job, to do what he pleases without fatigue or remorse," according to Darryl Pinckney in the New York Review of Books. The narrator speaks in the second person, present tense, distancing himself from his feelings and describing people and events in, as John Lownsbrough commented in the Globe and Mail, an "insinuating" voice. Some critics quoted the novel's first passage as indicative of the tone of the novel: "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. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again it might not."
"Bolivian Marching Powder" is a euphemism for cocaine; the frenetic social life of the narrator is analogous to the specious euphoria created by the drug, McInerney explained. As he told interviewer Joyce Wadler for the Washington Post, "'Cocaine' is the exact metaphorical equivalent of the idea that tonight, if you go to just one more party, one more place, that's gonna be the one … that somehow will fulfill you, and every time you do one more line, you think just one more."
Terence Moran in the New Republic applauded the style of Bright Lights, Big City, writing that "McInerney employs an unusual and challenging narrative device; he tells the tale through the second person in the historical present tense and fashions a coherent and engaging voice with it, one that is totally believable at almost every moment in the novel." Moran also praised the work as "an accomplished and funny novel, full of clever verbal contraptions and hip social pastiches." A Publishers Weekly reviewer also remarked that "The best part of this promising debut is McInerney's humor—it is cynical, deadpan and right on target, delivered with impeccable comic timing." However, while New York Times contributor Michiko Kakutani extolled McIner-ney's "eye for the incongruous detail, his ear for language, his hyperbolic sense of humor, and his ability to conjure up lively characters with a few lines of dialogue and a tart description or two," other critics were not so accepting of the author's approach.
After the release of Bright Lights, Big City, McInerney gained attention not only as an author but as a personality, embracing a celebrity lifestyle and socializing with some of his contemporaries at New York night spots. Authors Bret Easton Ellis (Less than Zero), Tama Janowitz (Slaves of New York), McInerney, and sometimes David Leavitt (Family Dancing) were dubbed the "Literary Brat Pack" by the popular press because of their relative youth at the time of their first success, the similar content of their novels, and their self-promotion and demand for high pay. Los Angeles Times contributor Nikki Finke said, "They're a new wave of writers soaring to stardom in the '80s at startlingly young ages with innovative writing styles and hip subject matter." Charles Maclean reported in the Spectator that the group was "scorned for embracing celebrity, posing for fashion spreads, endorsing products and keeping the gossip columnists busy—all sensible ways of consolidating the appeal these writers have to their mainly young urban professional audience." Remarking on the content of the writing by McInerney, Ellis, and Janowitz, however, Jonathan Yardley opined in the Washington Post: "These writers want to have it both ways: to exploit and even glorify indulgence in sex, drugs and luxury on the one hand, and to draw cautionary morals from it on the other."
McInerney's second effort, Ransom, centers on Princeton University graduate Christopher Ransom, an American expatriate who lives in Kyoto, Japan, teaching English to Japanese businessmen and studying karate. Events involving friends and family have left him numb: his mother has died; his father, in Ransom's opinion, has sacrificed his integrity by abandoning play writing to write for television; and he has lost his two traveling companions, Annette and Ian, in a drug-related incident at the Khyber Pass. Ron Loewinsohn wrote in the New York Times Book Review that the title character "feels guilty about the flabby privilege of his upper-middle-class background, and guilty by association with his father." In addition, blaming himself for the fate of his friends, he tortures himself with regrets and memories. In Japan he hopes to find "a place of austere discipline which would cleanse him and change him," Loewinsohn explained; Ransom's immersion in the martial arts becomes "a form of penance and purification."
Many critics noted that the strength of McInerney's first two novels lies in his humorous delivery and unexpected irreverences. Kakutani attributed "a mastery of [the] idiosyncratic, comic voice" to McInerney and found most of his jokes "amusing and dexterously handled." Together, McInerney's sense of humor and his active interest in human pathos combine to create fiction which, Moran said, "not only jests at our slightly tawdry life, but also celebrates its abiding possibilities."
In Story of My Life McInerney returns to the New York club scene, but, as Kakutani reported in the New York Times, "Where the young magazine fact checker in Bright Lights, Big City merely visited this world, Alison, her roommate Jeannie and their friends are fulltime residents here…. Cocaine and casual sex are their two obsessions; money to finance their pleasures is a constant preoccupation." Kakutani criticized the author's characterizations, claiming, "Alison and her pals—who dither on endlessly, like adolescent ninnies, about clothes, makeup and their boyfriends' sexual endowments—all seem less like believable women than like a man's paranoid, cartoonlike idea of what such females might be." However, Sarah Sheard, writing for the Globe and Mail, applauded McInerney's "fabulous ear for dialogue," adding that he "captures a tortured and articulate spirit trying her hardest to hide inside the IQ of a lawn ornament…. [The author] accomplishes this with wit and pacing, impeccable accuracy and, ultimately, compassion."
Brightness Falls is also set in New York in the 1980s—just around the time of the 1987 stock market crash—and comments on drug use, club-going, and greed, but revolves around an older group, "thirtysomethings" in the publishing business. The main characters are Russell Calloway, an editor for a publishing firm; his wife, Corinne, a stockbroker; and their friend Jeff Pierce, a famous author with a drug habit and groupies. John Skow, reviewing the book for Time, called it "a funny, self-mocking, sometimes brilliant portrait of Manhattan's young literary and Wall Street crowd, our latest Lost Generation."
Some critics, and even the author himself, compared Brightness Falls to Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities. David Rieff related in the Washington Post Book World that McInerney declared in a Vanity Fair interview, "'What was going through my mind when I sat down to write this novel was: What if Bonfire of the Vanities had real people in it?'" Indeed, in the Boston Globe, Matthew Gilbert commented, "While Brightness Falls is a sociological critique like Bonfire, it's more human than Wolfe's knife-twister." Sven Birkerts, however, reviewing the work for Chicago's Tribune Books, noted that the author's gift of farce was still evident, claiming that McInerney is "quite adept at rendering the feel of the publishing milieu. We get bright, satirically edged shots of everything from the lunch-hour confabs over advances and reputations to the rituals of male bonhomie at the urinals." Al J. Sperone in the Village Voice Literary Supplement stated that "McInerney has a gift for comic set pieces, and he's generous with snappy repartee, doling out wisecracks for everybody." Birkerts lauded Brightness Falls as a "solid and durably plotted book" and added, "Fueled by its images of excess and rendered biographically interesting by its undercurrents of felt remorse, it makes for a quick and compelling reading experience."
McInerney's fifth novel, The Last of the Savages, features two characters: the narrator, a New York lawyer named Patrick Keane, and his old college friend Will Savage, now a famous record producer. Patrick, from the vantage point of middle age, recounts his lower-middle-class background and his lifelong desire to be wealthy and aristocratic. While attending college at Yale University, he meets Will, whose privileged southern background is in stark contrast to his own. While Will goes on to achieve fame and even greater fortune as a record producer, Patrick abandons his dreams of a literary career for safe and solid work as a lawyer. Eventually Patrick must come to grips with his homoerotic feelings toward Will.
Many critics were unmoved by McInerney's attempt to encompass a wider historical realm in The Last of the Savages than he did with his earlier novels. Noting that the "central concerns" of the novel are "familiar adolescent ones"—youthful rebellion, social climbing, freedom—New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani remarked that "in order to broaden these coming-of-age quandaries and make 'Savages' seem like a larger novel, Mr. McInerney has tried to turn the story of Will and Patrick into an emblematic saga." However, Kakutani added, "None of these efforts … really work." Other reviewers criticized the author for producing a contrived plot and using sloppy prose. New York Times Book Review commentator Geoff Dyer, for instance, noted McInerney's tendency "to coast linguistically," while Thomas R. Edwards in the New York Review of Books declared that "bad writing here becomes unexpectedly endemic." Edwards added: "Some of the ineptitudes of the novel's prose are just irritating or unintentionally funny…. Others flirt with disaster."
The critical drubbing that followed McInerney through much of his early career ultimately prompted a bold move by the author. In 1990, according to a Publishers Weekly interview by Lorin Stein, he "struck back." Brandishing a samurai sword on the cover of Esquire, McInerney contributed an essay to that magazine that, noted Stein, "lashed out at the country's most prominent critics, claiming that they were prejudiced against young writers. At the same time, he dismissed the latest work of two young writers most closely associated with him," Janowitz and Ellis. But in a 1988 essay coinciding with the publication of Story of My Life, James Wolcott revealed in New Republic the thinking behind some of the barbs. "So far McInerney hasn't demonstrated the dramatic amplitude or organizational skills to be a novelist," Wolcott wrote. "His specialty is the smart-ass monologue." Acknowledging a character who asks friends what the "three biggest lies are," Wolcott commented that the "third biggest lie is, 'Jay, those critics are just jealous.'" Timing, more than talent, is what brought the author to the fore with Bright Lights, added Wolcott: "It caught the last tailwind of the downtown club scene before tired trendies began settling in as sofa spuds in front of their VCRs…. And McInerney's fact-checking department [in the novel] came at a time when the New Yorker was still envisioned as a bloodless Henry James arena of sacred hush and elaborate fuss."
In 1998's Model Behavior, McInerney retuned to familiar ground, New York City social life. Indeed, this 1998 novel—published with a group of short stories—"can almost be read as a sequel" to Bright Lights, Big City, according to Entertainment Weekly contributor Benjamin Svetkey. "But different decades, different themes," Svetkey added. "The club-hopping, powder-snorting excesses of the '80s have been replaced with a more '90s-style obsession: the celebrity culture." The title novella revolves around two characters: handsome young novelist Jeremy Green, anxiously awaiting the publication of his first collection; and Jeremy's older—but no wiser—best friend. Connor McKnight is "thirty-two and two-thirds old and not really happy about it," as the book relates. Stuck in a job penning celebrity profiles for the women's magazine CiaoBella!, Connor finds his life complicated further when his fashion-model girlfriend Philomena runs off with actor Chip Ralston—the same pretty-boy superstar Connor has been trying to land an interview with. This leaves the dismayed journalist "to lurch around Manhattan dealing with his witchy boss, his boorish but talented best friend and his anorexic sister," as Judith Timson described it in Maclean's. Timson admired the way McInerney's writing "comes alive" when depicting Connor's "weird but somehow still warm family." The author configured widely different fates for his two lead characters: Connor remains shallow and bitter but does head-butt a celebrity in a fit of pique, "which could be construed as a good thing," Timson observed. Meanwhile, Jeremy ironically dies in a freak accident as his acclaimed novel is adapted to the big screen.
"Model Behavior represents another return to the New York scene, one that mirrored its author's renewed interest in the city," Stein commented. If the book "shows McInerney's disdain for what celebrity is doing to our culture," the critic added, "it also shows a more personal fear of what celebrity does to celebrities. Connor sells out, but Jeremy dies—killed off, one senses, before success can spoil him. He seems too good, or too principled, for the world of McInerney's imagination."
Several favorable notices greeted Model Behavior, with critics welcoming the author back to his forte after the overambitious Last of the Savages. Booklist contributor Donna Seaman cited the "tightly constructed and viciously funny satire" running through the new collection, adding that "what makes McInerney so likeable is the ingeniousness behind his cynicism." "Sheer delights" is what Sheila Riley called Model Behavior in her Library Journal assessment. A.O. Scott, writing for the New York Times Book Review, praised the author's way with characterization: "It would take a roomful of M.F.A.'s a thousand years to produce a thumbnail sketch as satirically sharp as [McInerney's] … precis of his protagonist's family history." And Svetkey, while acknowledging that Model Behavior "isn't a perfect book," maintained that the collection explores the era's celebrity-obsessed culture "with more style and wit than it's getting credit for…. Frankly, it's a kick having McInerney back in town."
McInerney once told CA: "Since college, writing fiction is mainly what I've wanted to do, though I entered college writing poetry; I was convinced that was my metier. I changed, actually, in my senior year when I discovered a number of fiction writers all at once who hit me very hard and in such a way as to make me feel that fiction and narrative prose could be as exciting as lyrical poetry, which was what I was writing—and, ultimately, I came to feel, more exciting. Or I felt rather that my particular ambitions and proclivities were such that I would rather write fiction than poetry." Regarding who and what has influenced the humorous side of his work, McInerney revealed that an author "I read off and on quite a bit and like very much is Evelyn Waugh. I like P.G. Wodehouse, too, and Mark Twain. Don Quixote and Tom Jones are two novels that I would like to think have something to do with my comic sense. In more contemporary terms, the writer Thomas McGuane, although he's a very serious writer, is also very marvelous with comedy and has influenced me quite a bit, I'd say. J.P. Donleavy's The Ginger Man also…. And Joyce. The James Joyce of Ulysses is one of the funniest writers around, though most people are so daunted by some of his erudition that they forget to laugh."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 34, 1985, Volume 112, 1999.
Culture in an Age of Money, edited by Nicolaus Mills, Ivan R. Dee, 1990, pp. 216-233.
The Literature of Emigration and Exile, edited by James Whitlark and Wendell Alycock, Texas Tech University Press, 1992, pp. 115-130.
Atlantic Monthly, December, 1984, p. 145.
Book, December, 1998, review of Model Behavior, p. 77.
Booklist, August, 1998, Donna Seaman, review of Model Behavior, p. 1924.
Books, summer, 1998, review of Model Behavior, p. R4.
Boston Globe, June 10, 1992, Matthew Gilbert, review of Brightness Falls, p. 43.
Chicago Tribune, September 27, 1984; April 1, 1988; April 24, 1988; August 29, 1988.
Chicago Tribune Book World, October 7, 1984; September 15, 1985.
Christian Science Monitor, October 5, 1984, Ruth Doan MacDougall, "Having Fun in New York," p. B5; October 29, 1985; October 29, 1998, review of Model Behavior, p. B8.
Commentary, September, 1992, Evelyn Toynton, "High Life," pp. 56-57.
Entertainment Weekly, October 16, 1998, Benjamin Svetkey, "'Bright' Lite," p. 77.
Esquire, May, 1985; September, 1998, review of Model Behavior, p. 60.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), November 16, 1985, John Lownsbrough, review of Bright Lights, Big City; September 10, 1988, Sarah Sheard, review of The Story of My Life.
Harper's, December, 1988.
Interview, June, 1985.
Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 1998, review of Model Behavior, p. 991.
Library Journal, September 15, 1998, Sheila Riley, review of Model Behavior, p. 112.
Los Angeles Times, September 21, 1984; September 13, 1987.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 6, 1985; August 28, 1988, p. 3; June 7, 1992, Richard Eder, "Campfire of the Vanities," p. 3; June 6, 1996, Carter Coleman, "Riding a Ghost Train, Gatsby-Style," p. 10.
Maclean's, November 23, 1998, Judith Timson, review of Model Behavior, p. 140.
Ms., August, 1985.
Nation, June 10, 1996, p. 30.
National Review, June 22, 1992, Richard Brookhiser, "And the Moral Is," pp. 54-55.
New Republic, December 3, 1984, Terence Moran, review of Bright Lights, Big City, pp. 41-42; October 10, 1988, James Wolcott, "Yada Yada Yada," pp. 38-41.
New Statesman, August 14, 1998, review of Model Behavior, p. 47.
Newsweek, October 21, 1985; September 26, 1988, pp. 72-73; June 8, 1992, p. 58.
New Yorker, July 27, 1992.
New York Review of Books, November 8, 1984, Darryl Pinckney, review of Bright Lights, Big City, pp. 12-14; May 23, 1996, Thomas R. Edwards, review of The Last of the Savages, p. 28; February 18, 1999, review of Model Behavior, p. 7.
New York Times, October 30, 1984, Michiko Kakutani, review of Bright Lights, Big City; August 24, 1985; August 20, 1988, Kakutani, review of The Story of My Life; June 1, 1992, p. 13; April 30, 1996, Kakutani, review of The Last of the Savages, p. C17.
New York Times Book Review, November 25, 1984, William Kotzwinkle, "You're Fired, So You Buy a Ferret," p. 9; September 29, 1985, Ron Loewinsohn, "Land of the Also Rising Sun," p. 42; September 25, 1988, Carolyn Gaiser, "Zonked Again," p. 12; May 31, 1992, Cathleen Schine, review of Brightness Falls, p. 7; March 3, 1996, p. 8; May 26, 1996, Geoff Dyer, "Freeing the Slaves," p. 11; September 27, 1998, A.O. Scott, "Babylon Revisited," p. 12.
Observer (London, England), July 12, 1998, review of Model Behavior, p. 15; May 2, 1999, review of Model Behavior, p. 14.
Publishers Weekly, August 10, 1984, p. 76; July 19, 1985; July 29, 1988, Sybil Steinberg, review of The Story of My Life, p. 219; September 14, 1998, Lorin Stein, "Jay McInerney: N.Y. Confidential," p. 39; February 4, 2002, Judith Rosen, "Hip-Lit 101," p. 20.
Saturday Review, November, 1984, p. 88.
Southern Folklore, Volume 8, number 3, 1991, Frank de Caro, "The Three Great Lies," pp. 235-254.
Spectator, December 10, 1988, p. 36; May 30, 1992, p. 32.
Time, October 14, 1985; October 19, 1987; September 19, 1988, p. 95; June 1, 1992, John Skow, "Onward and Yupward," p. 82; May, 20, 1996, p. 76; September 28, 1996, review of Model Behavior, p. 84.
Times (London, England), August 26, 1989.
Times Literary Supplement, May 24, 1985, Roz Kaveney, "Solutions to Dissolution," p. 572; April 18, 1986; August 26, 1988, p. 927; May 15, 1992, p. 20; May 27, 1994, p. 20; June 14, 1996, James Campbell, "A Slave to Success," p. 24; July 31, 1998, review of Model Behavior, p. 19.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), June 7, 1992, Sven Birkerts, review of Brightness Falls, p. 3.
Vanity Fair, May, 1992.
Vogue, June, 1992, Graydon Carter, "Vogue Men," pp. 184-185.
Voice Literary Supplement, October 16, 1984, Al J. Sperone, review of Brightness Falls, p. 52; October, 1988, p. 42; June, 1992, p. 9.
Wall Street Journal, September 16, 1988, P.J. O'Rourke, review of "The Story of My Life," p. 23; June 12, 1992, Joseph Olshan, "A Golden Couple of the Age of Accretion," p. A12; May 9, 1996, p. A16; September 25, 1998, review of Model Behavior, p. W6.
Washington Post, November 6, 1984; December 12, 1984; September 7, 1988.
Washington Post Book World, August 25, 1985; May 24, 1992, David Rieff, review of Brightness Falls, p. 1; September 20, 1998, review of Model Behavior, p. 4.
Beatrice.com, http://www.beatrice.com/ (June 13, 2002), "Beatrice Interview."
Jay McInerney Web site, http://jaymcinerney.com/ (June 13, 2002).