Friday, January 13, 2012

Jay McInerney, Novelist

Jay McInerney is 57 years old today, which means that, yes, you are getting old.
Jay McInerny turns 57 today, and if you think that that just can't be, please keep in mind that Simon LeBon and Belinda Carlisle are just behind him at 53.  The 80s became the new 70s sometime around the millenium; at this point, they're more like the new 60s.

Every hack who has ever had a crack at J-Mac has gone the easy route and compared him to Brett Easton Ellis.  It's just too obvious and easy.  To prove it, here is my comparison of Ellis and McInerny.

If asked what author best captured the overkill of the Reagan years--both the giddiness of its unlimited possibilities and the despair of its rapacious excesses--many people would point to Brett Easton Ellis.  You know Ellis's work, of course.  Books like American Psycho and Less than Zero became huge bestsellers, then big-budget movies, because people liked to be reminded of a 1980s that never quite was, with its unchecked greed, cocaine use, and nail-gun-related murders.

If you wanted a more human and humane look at the 80s, though, you could do worse than Jay McInerny.  His sweet spot of 1984-1988 is more or less contemporary with Ellis's, but I prefer McInerny's rounded humanity to Ellis's bleak nihilism.  At first I was surprised to learn that McInerney was a student of Raymond Carver, my favorite fiction writer of the decade, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense.  Like Carver, McInerny is able to capture the humanity of the character in the middle of the maelstrom, and each of the three books below concern main characters who are trying to hold things together while their lives fall apart.

Here are my three favorites by McInerny, none of which I have read for quite some time.

1. Bright Lights, Big City
I did not read Bright Lights, Big City until approximately 2005, and I was a little underwhelmed by it.  Being his most famous work, I expected more.  Still, it's a sad, amusing look at the best and fastest way for someone to wreck his life.  

It's also famous for its use of the second-person point of view, which McInerny is able to pull off without being too distracting.  It's one of the rare works of fiction that does this and does it well, and it's always good for an illustration when you are an English teacher.  Here's a look at the first paragraph:

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 a a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head.  The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Loung.  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.

2. Story of My Life

As long as we're on the topic of infrequently-used fiction techniques, let's take the practice of writing from the point of view of the other gender.  Story of My Life is told from the point of view of Allison Poole, whose smart-cracking narration drives this novel along at a steady pace.  Allison wants to be an actor, but she's not doing too much acting.  As the 1988 review in People magazine states, "[Allison]  is halfheartedly studying acting but wholeheartedly avoiding doing anything interesting."  

Again, I haven't read this one in years, but I remember it being a fresh and charming read.

3. The Last of The Savages

The last book I will discuss is The Last of the Savages, which was released in 1997.  What I remember most about Savages was its connections to my home of Memphis and, more specifically, the suburb of Germantown, Tennessee where I grew up.  I can say that this is the only novel I have ever read that is set, however briefly, in Germantown, and the image of a tony Germantown home being firebombed because it is the scene of an inter-racial love affair is one that I can't forget.

I also remember that one scene takes place at a super-hip 1970s party, attended by Alex Chilton and William Eggleston.  The scene was not all that convincing, but it sure sounded like fun.

Last of the Savages was more a more sweeping story than his novels from the 80s, and more personal, as well.  I remember the final, touching conclusion of the main character, but I'm not going to tell you what it was.  You should read it for yourself.

Wikipedia-free research!

Sources Cited:

Vespa, Mary. "Picks and Pans Review: Story of My Life." People 3 October 1988.

"Jay McInerney." Authors and Artists for Young Adults. Vol. 18. Detroit: Gale, 1996.Gale Biography In Context. Web. 12 Jan. 2012.

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