I can’t seem to get this piece I read on Salon weeks ago out of my head. It was originally published in the LA Review of Books and was sort of about the transition Jay McInerney made from genius writer of his generation to current wine writer/socialite for The Wall Street Journal. Though I enjoyed the piece, I’m not sure I got the point of it. The surprising turns McInerney’s career has taken are well worth writing about but I couldn’t tell if the essay’s author was calling McInerney out for squandering his talent or damning the world for thinking that way.
A Talent Crush
Admittedly, I’ve spent way too much time thinking about McInerney’s career, partially because I often wonder why it is that with few exceptions, authors who write brilliant books often can’t seem to continue to write brilliant books. (Then I usually drift into wondering what constitutes brilliant since judging writing is subjective business indeed.)
The other reason I’ve thought about it as much as I have is that Jay McInerney made me want to be a writer. Not Hemingway, not Fitzgerald, not Austen. McInerney. And this choice was a big deal in my house, seeing as I came from a literary family that basically didn’t consider non-Brits who weren’t dead real writers.
I met Jay McInerney once a few years ago at Soho House in New York, which is I guess where something like this is supposed to happen. After years of living in LA and pretending, no matter how famous people were (or how intimately involved I was with them), that I had no idea they were well known, the sight of McInerney in the flesh eradicated my well-honed phony efforts to seem unimpressed.
“Oh my God, you’re Jay McInerney!” I exclaimed as he exited the men’s room. He smiled and I recognized the same brightness in his eyes from author photos and other pictures I’d seen of him at places like Elaine’s. We spoke for a while and he was incredibly kind, as I guess people can be when they hear someone declare them their creative inspiration. We ended up sitting and chatting for a little longer, and he took my adulation well, asking me about my own work and telling me he’d like to read it, even exchanging contact information with me (we had a couple emails back and forth after that but nothing noteworthy).
Yet it wasn’t just the writing in Bright Lights, Big City (or, later, when I read The Story of My Life and Brightness Falls) that did such a number on me. Yes, I was astounded that a writer could bring me smack into a middle of a scene to the point where I actually felt like I was there. Yes, I was dazzled by the wit and, though I didn’t know it at the time because I didn’t even know terms of this sort, the astounding effectiveness of his use of the second person.
Living Vicariously Through His Characters
Still, it was the world he described that most had me in its thrall. The casual glamour of his supporting characters with their trust funds and successful careers and knowledge of the right places to go in Manhattan and references to things I didn’t understand yet but could tell were impossibly cool, thrilled me. And the way his central character always seemed to be right at the edge of this crowd, like people who’d just been allowed in by a strict doorman and couldn’t believe their good fortune, gave me a vicarious pleasure I didn’t yet know how to identify.
It’s safe to say that the Bolivian marching powder that powered those books also had me in its thrall—not literally yet, because I read McInerney a good few years before I ever got seriously into coke myself, but conceptually…oh, yes. I was obsessed with cocaine years before I ever got addicted to it, as evidenced best perhaps by the fact that I was thoroughly fascinated by The Boost, a straight-up B movie that came out in 1988 and is best known for being the film that made Sean Young become obsessed with James Woods and start stalking him. I saw The Boost the night before I left for college and wept through every bit of Woods’ character descent into addiction. I’d only tried coke twice at this point and though I liked it both times, I certainly didn’t ever imagine myself doing it regularly, let alone becoming addicted to it and having it ruin my life. But boy did I cry during that movie. I was, I guess, an aspirational coke addict, already relating to my fellow comrades—however fictional—brought down by their most exciting new discovery.
McInerney’s characters never really had such tragic descents. As far as I recall, they managed to traverse the line between fun-coke-nights and whoa-I-need-to-chill-out-with-the-coke nights quite easily. I loved their indulgence, the way they would crawl home from work after having stayed out all night only to be coaxed out onto the town for another night of bad decisions. By bringing these characters and this lifestyle to me, McInerney showed me a world I could only fantasize about as a Marin County teen. The other kids from my school wore tie-die, were obsessed with the Grateful Dead and all seemed to share the same life aspirations: to make enough money to be able to eventually buy a house in Marin. No matter how beautiful Marin was, I wanted to get as far from it as possible; I wanted to make it to the Odeon to huddle in a bathroom with McInerney and his ilk, passing a small mirror with white powder on it back and forth. I knew I wanted to be in this world because McInerney, unlike so many other members of the sophisticated urban elite, gave me access to it, depicting it in such specific and entertaining ways that I felt a little like I was already there, standing next to him at the Heartbreak, talking to the bald woman and wondering where on earth Tad Allagash had disappeared to.
My Drastically Unglamorous Cocaine Stint
My own experiences with cocaine never, of course, involved going to the Odeon or the Heartbreak. I did coke only once in Manhattan and spent the majority of the evening at a random apartment being rented by some guy I vaguely knew from college. Years later, I did my own James-Woods-in-The-Boost descent in LA but after a handful of glamorous nights out, I eventually settled on a distinctly unglamorous coke crowd: a group of high school dropouts, all easily a decade younger than me, primarily gay, some transsexual, a few transsexual sex workers. When I got sober, I’d hear a girl in a meeting talk about doing drugs backstage at a rock show and ending up in a ménage a trois with members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I’d wonder how she’d gotten that story and I’d gotten the one that involved spending the majority of my coke years with a group that only left a sad West Hollywood apartment to go to Barneys Beanery to do karaoke while talking obsessively about Whitney Houston and her family (indeed, our code name for cocaine was “Sister,” which was, somehow, short for Whitney’s mom, Cissy).
By the time I got sober, Jay McInerney had lost a lot of his hold on me as well. I still read every one of his books, but I couldn’t ever really find traces of the delirious indulgence he’d once captured so well. I was disappointed but knew McInerney was no longer a 20-something literary bad boy so there was no reason to expect him to continue capturing an era and the people from it. I just didn’t relate to the fully formed adult McInerney as much as I did the adult McInerney who still acted like a kid.
Of course, times had changed, too. We’d all woken up. Manhattan was no longer gritty and glamorous but overpriced in a challenging economy so indulgence didn’t have the same allure. And when McInerney admitted that Alison Poole, the main character in The Story of My Life, had been based on John Edwards’ baby mama, he shone the brightest light imaginable on what can end up happening to the beautiful, exciting girl in the big city. Also, there are very few authors with numerous books I love; I can’t even get through the stuff Fitzgerald wrote in his later years.
Opting for Selective Memories
Still, I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to McInerney. Marrying a Hearst, I would imagine, would make a brilliant, ambitious kid not feel like he’d have to be so brilliant and ambitious anymore. Was wine critic the inevitable path for an enfant terrible who wasn’t going to realize his life was unmanageable and find a new way of living? Was the coke use he wrote about a sign that he did indeed have a problem and becoming a wine critic just another way to justify continuing to imbibe? Really, it’s none of my fucking business. Besides, I loved his early books so much that I’d rather herald him a genius for the work he did rather than fault him for not continuing to do it.
Though I always want to divide the world into addicts and non-addicts and define every success or failure as somehow relating to that, reality is a lot more complicated. It’s far more likely that worldly success is what changed him. Being celebrated and hailed as a genius before the age of 30, after all, surely guarantees that you’ll eventually forget all about what it was like to be on the outside looking in—let alone be able to write about it for the rest of the world.
Courtesy of David Shankbone from USA [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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