(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jay McInerney 1955–

American novelist, short story writer, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of McInerney's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 34.

McInerney achieved literary recognition as a chronicler of yuppie angst and upscale glamour during the 1980s. His enormously popular debut novel, Bright Lights, Big City (1984), presents an insider's view of the fast-paced nightlife and cocaine subculture of the young, privileged elite in New York City. In subsequent novels, including Ransom (1985), Story of My Life (1988), Brightness Falls (1992), and The Last of the Savages (1996), McInerney offers similar portraits of disaffected affluent professionals harried by isolation, drug and alcohol abuse, and their inability to find meaning or love in contemporary upper-class society. Praised for his satirical wit, McInerney is regarded as a gifted social observer of the hedonistic excesses and psychological torpor personified by the wildly prosperous young, urban professional of the 1980s.

Biographical Information

Born in Hartford, Connecticut, McInerney spent his childhood in several cities in North America and Europe, including London and Vancouver, the result of his father's frequent transfers as an international sales executive. After completing high school in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where his family eventually settled, McInerney attended Williams College, from which he received a bachelor's degree in philosophy and a minor in English in 1976. An aspiring writer, McInerney briefly worked as a reporter for the Huntington County Democrat, a local newspaper in Flemington, New Jersey. In 1977, he departed for Japan on a Princeton-in-Asia fellowship, where he attended classes at the Institute for International Studies near Tokyo, taught English at Kyoto University, and worked as a textbook editor for Time-Life Publications in Osaka, Japan. Returning to the United States in 1979, McInerney took work as a fact checker for the New Yorker magazine, then as a reader of unsolicited manuscripts at Random House. Upon the encouragement of Raymond Carver, McInerney left New York City and his failed first marriage to begin graduate writing courses at Syracuse University in 1981. Three years later, McInerney married Merry Reymond, a doctoral student, and published his best-selling first novel, Bright Lights, Big City, an expansion of his short story "It's Six A.M. Do You Know Where You Are?" which appeared in the Paris Review in 1982. With the stunning success of Bright Lights, Big City, an early installment in Random House's newly launched "Vintage Contemporaries" paperback series, McInerney achieved fame and became a representative of the "Literary Brat Pack"—a media-appointed group of young writers, including Bret Easton Ellis, Tama Janowitz, and David Leavitt—whose demand for large advances and similar novelistic concerns distinguished them as a new generation of high-profile authors. McInerney produced his much anticipated second novel, Ransom, in 1985, and a third, Story of My Life, in 1988. He also collaborated on the screenplay for Bright Lights, Big City, which was adapted into a motion picture in 1988. During the 1990s, McInerney entered into a third marriage (to Helen Bransford, a jewelry designer) and published additional novels, including Brightness Falls and The Last of the Savages. He also edited Cowboys, Indians, and Commuters (1994), an anthology of sixteen short stories by young American writers, and has contributed to numerous popular magazines, including Esquire, Playboy, Vogue, and The New Republic.

Major Works

McInerney's novels relate the disorientation and fragmentation of modern urban life through the experiences of moneyed, upwardly mobile characters whose failed relationships, drug and alcohol addictions, and effete entertainments reveal their superficial concerns. Bright Lights, Big City, largely based on McInerney's own life, follows an aspiring writer in his early twenties who works as a fact checker for a highbrow literary magazine resembling The New Yorker, binges on cocaine and alcohol at exclusive Manhattan nightclubs, and laments his recent divorce from Amanda, a fashion model, and the death of his mother. From the uncommon second-person point of view, the unnamed narrator describes the frenetic cycle of work, late-night parties, and casual sex sustained by copious amounts of "Bolivian Marching Powder," a euphemism for cocaine. After a period of uninterrupted drugging to numb the painful loss of his wife and mother, the narrator emerges from a cocaine haze to confront his feelings of alienation and lost self-identity. Ransom features a young American expatriate, Christopher Ransom, who flees to Japan to study the ancient art of karate and to escape the expectations of his father, a successful writer of banal television programs who presses his son to embrace capitalism. While in Kyoto, Ransom recalls the deaths of his friends, Ian and Annette, in a debacle along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border involving hashish-dealing kidnappers and a drug overdose. After a confrontation with his father, who attempts to lure his son back to the United States with a seductive woman, Ransom is killed in a sparring match with a vicious martial arts student. Story of My Life follows the demise of twenty-year-old Alison Poole, a self-proclaimed "postmodern girl," as she slips further into alcoholism and cocaine dependency. Set in Manhattan, Alison's first-person monologue describes her unhappy upbringing, escalating drug habit, and preoccupations with sex, fashion, and shallow stockbrokers. All but abandoned by her womanizing father who molested her as a child and poisoned her favorite horse to collect the insurance money, Alison briefly finds purpose and naive self-awareness in acting classes before her addiction lands her in a Minnesota drug treatment center. In subsequent novels, McInerney writes about similar characters as they gradually settle down and approach mid-life. In Brightness Falls, part business thriller and roman à clef about the publishing world, McInerney chronicles the waning prosperity and amorality of the 1980s through the marital crisis of Russell and Corinne Calloway—both New York professionals in their early thirties—and the mercurial success of Jeff Pierce, a newly famous young author who succumbs to heroin addiction. The title of the novel is taken from Thomas Nashe's fatalistic Elizabethan poem "A Litany in Time of Plague." Seduced by the allure of wealth and power, Russell, an editor at a distinguished publishing firm, unsuccessfully attempts to usurp the company in a hostile takeover. His marriage to Corinne, a highly paid stockbroker and morally conscious soup kitchen volunteer, is also shaken by mutual infidelities—Russell's with an attractive financier and Corinne's with Jeff. Their eventual reconciliation highlights the importance of love and security over the corrupting influence of greed and ruthless ambition. The Last of the Savages explores contemporary race issues in the Deep South through the friendship of former prep school roommates Patrick Keane, a New Englander of modest origins, and Will Savage, a wealthy descendant of aristocratic Memphis planters. Narrated by Patrick, a prosperous New York corporate lawyer in his late forties, the story relates Will's extreme guilt over his family heritage of slave ownership, which he compensates for by promoting black blues musicians and radical politics. While Patrick enjoys the fruits of an Ivy League education and a prestigious career, Will resents his bigoted father, marries a black singer, and struggles to overcome a drug addiction that renders him sterile.

Critical Reception

Upon the publication of Bright Lights, Big City, McInerney emerged as a leading new voice in contemporary American fiction. His heady depiction of rampant cocaine abuse, sexual encounters, and after-hours parties among the trendy New York elite attracted a large popular audience and much critical discussion, becoming itself a handbook of yuppie debauchery during the mid-1980s. The cynical narrator of Bright Lights, Big City has been favorably compared to J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. While some critics praise McInerney's authentic, streetwise voice and unabashed description of arrogant decompensation during the heyday of Reaganomics, others find fault in McInerney's second-person narrative, ephemeral colloquial style, and apparent glorification of the profligate lifestyle portrayed in the novel. Though Ransom failed to live up to the promise of his literary debut, McInerney was praised for wry humor and perceptive analysis of the tragically spoiled and fashionably addicted in Story of My Life, Brightness Falls, and The Last of the Savages. Both Brightness Falls, a satire of New York greed and corruption akin to Tom Wolfe's 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, and The Last of the Savages are admired for McInerney's effort to address larger social issues. Frequently compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose evocation of the Lost Generation and gilded age of the 1920s defined an era, McInerney is regarded as a literary spokesperson for the disillusioned young professional of the 1980s.