The Short Version: Alison Poole is living the good life. Bankrolled by her parents, enrolled in acting school, living with her best girl friend, doing tons of blow and tons of guys – and then everything starts to fall apart. She meets a great guy but can’t seem to keep him, her best friend blows the rent, everyone’s doing too much coke, and the speed at which things are happening seems entirely unsustainable. But its New York City in the 80s, so rack up another line and let’s play some Truth or Dare.
The Review: Something came over me yesterday on my way to Connecticut about needing to read another McInerney novel. Prepare for irrelevant if vaguely savory background – or skip to the next paragraph: Bright Lights Big City was a game-changer in many ways for me last year and after seeing McInerney on Morning Joe this week and with complicated thoughts about the girl who inspired me to live a vaguely McInerney-esque life (minus the blow) and with summer coming on strong, it just felt right. But I didn’t want to read his 9/11 novel or about the middle-aged people. I wanted another Bright Lights Big City – not a sequel or a rehash but a companion novel, like the way Less Than Zero and The Rules of Attraction feel like kindred spirits.
Fantastically, this is actually exactly that: a sibling novel. Where Bright Lights was a late-twentysomething young man having lost his way – this is the 20-year-old girl losing hers. (Oddly enough – perhaps its a maturity level thing? – I see girls at 20/21 as approximately mentally equal to guys in the 25-28 range.) And it’s fantastic. It really is. It’s as funny and sharp and hopeless as his other novels but from the flipped perspective. I was nervous, at first, about McInerney writing from the POV of a girl – and yes, some of the stuff gets a little icky (the vaginal infection was a bit much, for real) – but he pulls it off pretty well.
In fact, he pulls it off well enough that I believe it all to be somewhat true. This is partially because I know Ms. Poole is based off a young Rielle Hunter – yes, that’s right, John Edwards’ baby momma mistress lady – but partially because I know a girl (several, actually) who is living this sort of life. Sure, things have changed in 2012 – the 80s were a uniquely suited time for these sorts of shenanigans – but the basic refrain remains the same. They run up their fathers’ credit cards, they do a lot of drugs, they fuck who they want when they want, and they only vaguely have a plan for any sort of ‘future’. I don’t know what else to do but shrug – I’m certainly not judging. I’ve dated too many of this type of girl to be judgey.
What’s most interesting about the book is the path that Alison takes. Where our unnamed narrator in Bright Lights sees the future he wanted slip away from him, Alison doesn’t know what future she wants until it dawns on her. Sorry, that’s not a terrifically apt way of putting it, but do you know what I mean? She doesn’t have a plan of muffins and the New York Times in the mornings, but she suddenly realizes one day that her friends, well… aren’t. And that’s what resonated most with me about this novel. I mean, that struck a chord. This is not to say that I’m over my friends or anything like that – but we all have that experience of outgrowing a friendship, moving on. Being at a party with the same faces talking the same talk and making the same mistakes and suddenly you think “why the hell am I here with these people?” and in that moment you’ve separated yourself from them and that’s an irrevocable step. Sure, like Alison – and like most of us – you might keep hanging out with them, doing those same old things… but it’s not the same anymore because you’ve made a step, logically, that you cannot unmake. It’s like once you’ve had an idea, you can’t un-have it.
The end of the novel, too, is a bit jarring. I keep comparing the two, but Bright Lights ends on a redemptive and hopeful note: the reader believes that You is going to learn everything all over again. This novel ends on a much less happy note. It ends (SPOILERS……….)
with Alison in rehab/a psych hospital? It’s definitely at least the former, but there are hints that it may be the latter. I mean, we know it doesn’t end up doing her all that much good (remember, our dear Ms. Poole returns in Bret Easton Ellis’ late great novels: American Psycho and Glamorama) but in the moment, there’s the positive of her being off drugs. But she starts to wonder how much of this she remembers accurately and the last line is far more haunting: “I’d love to think that ninety percent of it was just dreaming.” That’s such a sad and forlorn way to end things – despondent, perhaps. But as an early twentysomething male, I understand it. There’s a part of me that wishes I could lead the crazy lives that these characters lead – and I’m right next door to it, I know that – but I also know that I’m too melancholic at times anyway. A life like this, facing that pivot where 2 a.m. becomes 6 a.m., would end me as we know it.
Rating: 4 out of 5. It’s an excellent novel. As the back cover notes, this is pre-Gossip Girl and all that stuff. This is where it started. Alison Poole – who lives, if I’m not mistaken, on my block (or at least just across the avenue – and no, I won’t say where but intrepid readers can probably figure it out) – is a fantastic character and seeing her earlier days is a treat. But most importantly, it’s about the trashy crazy life I wish I could lead and the multitude of reasons I don’t. It’s pure escapism, in that sense – and what the hell else are books for? I hoover them up like Didi does lines of blow – really, we’re both just looking for the same thing. And our habits probably cost about the same. Mine just won’t deviate your septum.