Jay McInerney Essay - Critical Essays

McInerney, Jay


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.

Principal Works

Bright Lights, Big City (novel) 1984
Ransom (novel) 1985
Story of My Life (novel) 1988
Brightness Falls (novel) 1992
Cowboys, Indians, and Commuters: The Penguin Book of New American Voices [editor] (short stories) 1994
The Last of the Savages (novel) 1996


Ruth Doan MacDougall (review date 5 October 1984)

SOURCE: "Having Fun in New York," in The Christian Science Monitor, October 5, 1984, p. B5.

[In the following review, MacDougall offers a favorable assessment of Bright Lights, Big City.]

The nameless hero of this very funny first novel narrates the story in second person—a device that runs the risk of becoming gimmicky and tedious but instead triumphs, emphasizing the distance the hero feels from his collapsing life.

A "perennial new kid" in school, he grew up with a feeling "of always standing to one side of yourself, of watching yourself in the world even as you were being in the world, and wondering if this was how everyone felt."


(The entire section is 538 words.)

Roz Kaveney (review date 24 May 1985)

SOURCE: "Solutions to Dissolution," in Times Literary Supplement, May 24, 1985, p. 572.

[In the following excerpt, Kaveney offers praise for Bright Lights, Big City.]

The urban unease that these novels depict has in them its artistic equivalent, a sense of less than absolute commitment to technical strategies adopted. The novel has traditionally celebrated community; can its traditional mechanisms be as readily applied to the corruption or disappearance, in the modern American city, of any participation in a common social existence? The narrative perversities of Jay McInerney, Gloria Naylor's frequent descents into the barn-storming of melodrama and soap opera, the...

(The entire section is 559 words.)

Ron Loewinsohn (review date 29 September 1985)

SOURCE: "Land of the Also Rising Sun," in The New York Times Book Review, September 29, 1985, p. 42.

[In the following review, Loewinsohn offers unfavorable assessment of Ransom.]

Jay McInerncy is a serious, gifted artist. His first novel, Bright Lights, Big City, is a brilliant and moving work—unique, refreshing, imaginatively powerful and authentically conceived. Ransom, on the other hand, while dealing competently with some of the same themes—alienation, self-alienation and the need for context and continuity—rarely rises above the level of mere competence. It feels thoroughly conventional, thoroughly uninspired.

It is concerned...

(The entire section is 746 words.)

P. J. O'Rourke (review date 16 September 1988)

SOURCE: "Bookshelf: 'Story of My Life,'" in The Wall Street Journal, September 16, 1988, p. 23.

[In the following review, O'Rourke offers a favorable assessment of Story of My Life.]

Oh no, it's rich kids leading empty lives, taking harmful drugs and having sex too often (then feeling empty, drugged and tired). In Story of My Life, Jay McInerney seems to be adding another volume to the dread and burgeoning category of "Self-Helpless Books."

The browser's first instinct is to take the author, the characters, the author's ex-friends upon whom the characters are based (and the producers, directors and studio executives who will turn it all into a...

(The entire section is 1010 words.)

Carolyn Gaiser (review date 25 September 1988)

SOURCE: "Zonked Again," in The New York Times Book Review, September 25, 1988, p. 12.

[In the following review, Gaiser offers an unfavorable assessment of Story of My Life.]

Nelson Algren once observed in conversation that "no matter how many novels you write, it sure as hell doesn't get any easier. Each new book is a whole new ball game." That familiar metaphor takes on fresh meaning here, aptly conveying the sheer chanciness of an artistic enterprise in which even a writer as gifted as Jay McInerney may produce a disappointing novel. A very disappointing one.

Story of My Life is Mr. McInerney's third work of fiction. In 1985, he won critical...

(The entire section is 726 words.)

James Wolcott (review date 10 October 1988)

SOURCE: "Yada Yada Yada," in New Republic, October 10, 1988, pp. 38-41.

[Below, Wolcott offers unfavorable review of Story of My Life.]

Beware of a novel built upon a catch-phrase. A flip curl eventually loses its hold. Story of my life, toss-away phrase for a toss-away life, is the signature curl of Alison Poole, postmodern boy-toy by night, aspiring actress by day. "Acting is the first thing that's made me get up in the morning. The first year I was in New York I didn't do anything but guys and blow. Staying out all night at the Surf Club and Zulu, waking up at five in the afternoon with plugged sinuses and sticky hair. Some kind of white stuff in every opening....

(The entire section is 2610 words.)

Josephine Hendin (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Fictions of Acquisition," in Culture in an Age of Money, edited by Nicolaus Mills, Ivan R. Dee, 1990, pp. 216-33.

[In the following excerpt, Hendin explores the integration of emotions, individuality, materialism, and commercial culture in Bright Lights, Big City. According to Hendin, the novel represents "the compression of the novel of manners into an equivalent of upscale ads."]

The rich diversity of American fiction has always made newness difficult to characterize. But the 1980s have seen not only the arrival of fresh work by writers who have long established that diversity, but also the fracturing of literary culture along quasipolitical lines:...

(The entire section is 2257 words.)

Frank de Caro (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "The Three Great Lies: Riddles of Love and Death in a Postmodern Novel," in Southern Folklore, Vol. 48, No. 3, 1991, pp. 235-54.

[In the following essay, de Caro examines the cultural context and significance of contemporary urban folklore in Story of My Life, particularly as revealed in formal and informal communication among the novel's characters.]

At the Indiana University Folklore Institute in the 1960s two bits of lore circulated relevant to the current essay. One was the title of an imaginary, mock study such as waggish graduate students concoct: "Frontier Humor in the Writings of Henry James." The other was the supposedly true story of a...

(The entire section is 7929 words.)

Cathleen Schine (review date 31 May 1992)

SOURCE: A review of Brightness Falls, in The New York Times Book Review, May 31, 1992, p. 7.

[In the following review, Schine offers qualified praise for Brightness Falls.]

A trash novel tells you everything you already know about a way of life you will, in fact, never know. A serious novel tells you, in one way or another, what you don't know about the familiar, the personal, the dailiness of life—and so about life itself. Brightness Falls, Jay McInerney's fourth novel, is an easy, entertaining trash novel with welcome glimpses of authentic writing—moments of honest pleasure stashed here and there, unobtrusively, almost apologetically.


(The entire section is 1307 words.)

Sven Birkerts (review date 7 June 1992)

SOURCE: "McInerney's Redemption," in Chicago Tribune Books, June 7, 1992, p. 3.

[In the following review, Birkerts offers a favorable assessment of Brightness Falls.]

"Whom the gods would destroy," Cyril Connolly once wrote, "they first call promising." Jay McInerney, the most visible of the much-maligned "brat-packers" of the 1980s, might have done well to have the words stenciled on the front of his favorite T-shirt, for in recent years the track of his astonishing ascendancy has been playing in slow-motion reverse.

Every book after McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City, every late-night grimace snapped by the papparazzi of the fashion...

(The entire section is 1058 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 7 June 1992)

SOURCE: "Campfire of the Vanities," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 7, 1992, p. 3.

[Below, Eder offers a negative review of Brightness Falls.]

Thomas Nashe's "A Litany in Time of Plague" is one of the most celebrated and haunting of Elizabethan poems, with its bony caution to mortality:

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air,
Queens have died young and fair,
Dust hath closed Helen's eye.
I am sick, I must die….

Using it for his title, then for a reference, and...

(The entire section is 941 words.)

Joseph Olshan (review date 12 June 1992)

SOURCE: "A Golden Couple of the Age of Accretion," in The Wall Street Journal, June 12, 1992, p. A12.

[In the following review, Olshan offers tempered praise for Brightness Falls.]

Nearly everyone and everything in Jay McInerney's ambitious fourth novel, Brightness Falls, is leveraged. Companies falsify their assets with elaborate facades; authors who are paid egregious advances cannot honor their commitments; undesirable body parts are pumped with silicone that might explode should the unlucky patron ride the Concorde.

In his novels and stories of the 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald also explored an era's unmet desires and inflated expectations,...

(The entire section is 829 words.)

Evelyn Toynton (review date September 1992)

SOURCE: "High Life," in Commentary, Vol. 94, No. 3, September, 1992, pp. 56-7.

[In the following review, Toynton gives a negative evaluation of Brightness Falls.]

"You will have to learn everything all over again." So goes the last line of Jay McInerney's first, most entertaining novel, Bright Lights, Big City (1984). The sentence could almost be taken as McInerney's own authorial program, since both he and his characters seem, in book after book, to be learning not exactly everything but the same thing all over again. And what do they learn? That the glittering allure of hip parties, fashionable clubs, naughty drugs—and, in Brightness Falls, his latest...

(The entire section is 1062 words.)

Jefferson Faye (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Cultural/Familial Estrangement: Self-Exile and Self-Destruction in Jay McInerney's Novels," in The Literature of Emigration and Exile, edited by James Whitlark and Wendell Aycock, Texas Tech University Press, 1992, pp. 115-30.

[In the following essay, Faye examines the themes of "cultural disaffection," alienation, and expatriation in Bright Lights, Big City, Ransom, and Story of My Life. According to Faye, "Each novel may be considered a bildungsroman whose action revolves around a familial betrayal as it drives the main character to reject not only relatives, but self."]

According to Malcolm Bradbury's The Expatriate Tradition in...

(The entire section is 7061 words.)

Thomas R. Edwards (review date 23 May 1996)

SOURCE: "Babylon Re-Revisited," in The New York Review of Books, May 23, 1996, pp. 28-9.

[In the following review, Edwards discusses Bright Lights, Big City, Ransom, and Story of My Life, and finds fault with McInerney's "bad writing" and lack of social and historical understanding in The Last of the Savages.]

The 1980s in America were not unlike the 1920s, as almost everyone noticed. Costly foreign military adventures had wound down, postwar slumps had turned to booms, friends of business in both parties had power in Washington, the demand for illegal substances was enriching the criminal classes even as the rewards of high finance were making criminals...

(The entire section is 3259 words.)

Geoff Dyer (review date 26 May 1996)

SOURCE: "Freeing the Slaves," in The New York Times Book Review, May 26, 1996, p. 11.

[In the following review, Dyer cites shortcomings in The Last of the Savages. According to Dyer, "We are left with the statement of great purpose rather than its achieved substance and form."]

As the allusive title suggests, The Last of the Savages addresses itself to big themes. Grappling with "the past's implacable claims on the present," it is a novel about—as a character accents it with some incredulity—history. It is also, tacitly, a novel about the confrontation with a frontier: a demonstration of a writer coming up against his limitations. In the end it...

(The entire section is 1458 words.)

Carter Coleman (review date 9 June 1996)

SOURCE: "Riding a Ghost Train, Gatsby-Style," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 9, 1996, p. 10.

[In the following review, Coleman offers praise for The Last of the Savages, but dismisses McInerney's aspiration to match F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.]

It is foolhardy for a novelist to go toe to toe with a beloved classic. Whether by accident or design, it's a risk Jay McInerney takes with his fifth novel. The Last of the Savages echoes with allusions to The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald's tragic tale of a self-invented man whose dreams ultimately destroy him. In doing so, he has written a thoroughly engaging and funny novel that...

(The entire section is 1071 words.)

James Campbell (review date 14 June 1996)

SOURCE: "A Slave to Success," in Times Literary Supplement, June 14, 1996, p. 24.

[In the following review, Campbell offers tempered praise for McInerney's effort to address contemporary race relations in The Last of the Savages.]

In 1962, at the height of the Civil Rights movement. James Baldwin published Another Country, a novel based on the premise that love conquers all, and involving every racial and sexual permutation then imaginable (in many minds, unimaginable). Three-and-a-half decades later, the contents of the pot having failed to melt, the best of the present crop of white writers seem to feel as uncomfortable with black characters as the worst of...

(The entire section is 1004 words.)

Further Reading


Caveney, Graham. "Psychodrama: Qu'est-ce que c'est? Jay McInerney and the Family Saga." In Shopping in Space: Essays on America's Blank Generation Fiction, edited by Elizabeth Young and Graham Caveney, pp. 43-74. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1992.

Examines the fictional presentation and psychological motivations of characters in Bright Lights, Big City, Ransom, Story of My Life, and Brightness Falls.

Girard, Stephanie. "'Standing at the Corner of Walk and Don't Walk': Vintage Contemporaries, Bright Lights, Big City, and the Problem of Betweenness." American Literature 68,...

(The entire section is 273 words.)