Bright Lights, Big City

The Short Version: It’s the 1980s and you’re plowing through life – and mountains of cocaine – as fast as you can.  Your wife – a model – has left you, your mother is dead, your best friend is a party animal, and you’re probably going to lose your job.  But hey, it’s New York – you always have another party to go to.

The Review: This is a summer book.  Fitting, seeing as New York decided to descend into the depths of hell early this year and summer started (fittingly, for all those pools that opened) over Memorial Day weekend.  It is a book to be enjoyed at the speed of light (…or cocaine) by an open window with a fan blowing and a drink sweating on the sill.

Part of the issue of reviewing a book like this (or like Less Than Zero) is… well, what’s left to say?  I mean, this book (along with Ellis’ early output) was rightly hailed as the coming of a new age of literature in America.  These guys were young and brash and drug-fueled.  And they wrote about what it was like to be young, brash, and drug-fueled.  I’m some-not-all of those things – despite what Jess Burkle, stand-up comedian and Off-Broadway star, will try to make you believe, I do not do coke and am, in fact, just naturally this busy – but I also get the sense that Ellis and McInerney were writing for me.    Sure, the world is a bit different than it was in the 80s – that last chapter opening of Bright Lights directly references the World Trade Center towers, nobody has a cell phone, and the landscape of New York has changed rather dramatically (just read the descriptions of Times Square – good for a nostalgic laugh).  But there’s a spirit, especially here in New York, that I think pervades any young, intelligent, ambitious person.  The parties I’m going to aren’t fashion launches, they’re Broadway openings – but beyond that, there isn’t much difference.

But anyway, onto the book itself: McInerney’s style here does take a bit of getting used to.  He’s writing in the second person but it works.  After a moment of brief disorientation (and experimenting with the idea of actually believing that I was being addressed by this book), my mind aligned with the form and I never had a problem with it.  It also never really came off as pretentious, despite the fact that McInerney is now basically a synonym for pretension.  I found it a fun exercise and I don’t know that the book would’ve had the same impact had it been written in the third person or even first person.  So, okay, I take back a little bit of what I said – maybe I did, in the end, project myself as the main character instead of imagining some random male.  This inevitably happens subliminally rather often but perhaps this was just a way of making that a more conscious choice.

The plot is thin – really, this is barely more than a novella – and the development rather minuscule until the end.   The main character is mid/late 20s, a writer at a major prestigious magazine (I assumed it was The New Yorker – although it could be Harper’s or The Atlantic) who is stuck in the fact-checking office.  His wife has left him – she was a Midwestern farm girl who hitched her cart to him and then ran off as soon as she became a famous model.  His best friend, Tad Allagash (great freaking name), is a coke and party fiend who gets one of the best lines in a book full of good ones – “We have plans for the evening.  Monstrous events are scheduled.”  There are women – they’re mostly interchangeable, except maybe for Tad’s cousin….

And this is where I found that the book went off the rails just a little.   I bought that Tad’s cousin is the woman he’s been looking for – the one who’ll allow him to live the life he’s looking for, with the paper and the book and the nights at home and the going-to-shows and all of that – but I wanted to see more of her.  I was disappointed that she only appears twice and that we only see the very beginnings of their connection.  I found Michael, the main character’s brother, to be a convenient plot device: the coke high of the first 150 pages was wearing off, so for the last 25 or so McInerney introduces this character (who had been vaguely referenced now and then as leaving messages for the main character) who brings with him a colossal whack of a plot development: their mother died one year ago and the main character has, apparently, been running from this fact ever since.

This bothered me.  I found it to be an escape route.  The main character doesn’t indulge in the truly terrible behavior that many of Ellis’ protagonists take pleasure in (Clay and Bateman and Victor leading that pack) so why do his transgressions require this absolution?  Why does the main character suddenly need to grow up, start fresh, come crashing down to earth?  My biggest complaint with this novel is that it does not go far enough: why couldn’t we’ve spent more time with you?  Developing the relationship with the Allagash girl, dealing with Amanda (the ex-wife)’s return to NYC, the fallout from losing his job… these are all things I would’ve enjoyed seeing more of.  Instead, we’re left with a sudden and surprising reversal – as though the trials and tribulations the main character was going through were, in fact, no more than something to be brushed off.

Rating: 4 out of 5.  The pleasures of this novel far outweigh the tepid ending.  There’s some great quotable material, more euphemisms for cocaine than I thought possible, wonderfully descriptive language, and characters who are interestingly flawed.  I just wish we’d gotten to see actual, natural development instead of forced resolution at the end.  But McInerney’s 1980’s NYC isn’t all that different from the NYC of today – there’s less smut on the streets of Times Square, but my twentysomething friends and I are all moving just as fast if not faster than they did back then.  And hey, we don’t even abuse coke!


For the record: all of my jokes about cocaine are JOKES.


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