MY HIGH SCHOOL CHAPLAIN was the first person to tell me to read Bright Lights, Big City. We were doing an independent study. He told me to pay attention to McInerney’s velocity of voice, but now I suspect he was trying to tell me something else too. I suspect that he was trying to expose me, a would-be writer from suburban California, to New York and its literary scene, equal parts preppy and underground, dapper and grimy. I think he was hoping to give my writing some bite. That he was our chaplain gave him the leverage to be cool, to share secrets, while the rest of the teachers had to act dutiful. I didn’t read the book though. I took pride in the suburbs, in my t-shirt dominated wardrobe. I was sick of hearing about New York. I had some friends from there.
After college, I got a job in San Francisco at a company that owned restaurants and wine stores and wineries. I had enough money to pay the rent and go out on Polk Street. I started to learn about wine. I befriended a waiter at one of the company’s restaurants. He’d been in a punk band. He sensed that I should be doing something else with myself and one day he stopped by my office and gave me Bright Lights, Big City.
I didn’t like the way this book was following me around. I get out of college and meet one literate person and here’s the book he gives me. This was in 2004, 20 years after Bright Lights burst onto the scene. I didn’t like that I’d been told twice that I had to read it. I was miserable with my job, but taking a sickly sort of pleasure in doing nothing about it. Wine was enough. I thought it was sophisticated, even artsy. Sniffing the glass, decoding my senses, I thought that I was preserving my brain for some time in the future when I’d put it to work again. But I wasn’t quite ready to put it to work yet. I sensed that Bright Lights, Big City would push me to act. I was right. After a few weeks of letting it languish on my bedside table, I picked the book up and tore through it in a sitting.
Bright Lights, Big City made Jay McInerney an instant literary celebrity, and at age 24, he, along with Bret Easton Ellis and Tama Janowitz, became the faces of a new literary brat pack.
For me, Bright Lights, 20 years after its release, felt like a guide to the way young writers should be. His world, it seemed, was the one that I should know if I wanted to write about something worthwhile — a world where high highs and low lows converged in a frenzy that seemed like the answer to my workingman’s doldrums. The chaplain had been right.
The chaplain was right about the voice in Bright Lights too. The book has a torrid, vulnerable, wounded voice, the sound of competing impulses — the narrator’s frequently mentioned desire to lead a quiet life, the narrator’s frequently acted upon desire for “Bolivian marching powder.” The voice is the sound of the narrator’s racing thoughts, the thoughts that have run together and blurred and blocked the memory of his dead mother, blotted out the image of his recently-departed (to Paris) young ex-wife — he cannot remember her face. He cannot bear to think about what he has lost, and so his thoughts churn, and he churns, wading through his days at work in a fog, charging through his nights in the city like a bat on fire.
“You were a good guy. You deserved ...read more