Part of the literary brat pack that emerged in the 1980s, thanks to his first novel, Bright Lights, Big City, which painted a vivid portrait of Manhattan life from the eyes of a hip twentysomething protagonist.

McInerney's career will be forever tied to that of Bret Easton Ellis, because both broke onto the literary scene at about the same time with novels exploring the emptiness of yuppie life. But they're completely different people -- Ellis' work is dark and disturbing (American Psycho was not that anomalous for him) whereas McInerney's relies on a kinder hand, with sympathy to his characters' insecurities. McInerney also flashes more humor in his writing, making some passages downright cute as well as eloquent.


Born in 1955 in Hartford, CT, McInerney grew up all over the place: London, Tokyo and Vancouver were a few of his homes. After graduating from Williams College, he sought his fortune in New York City. It was during that time that he amassed the experiences that would build Bright Lights, landing a job as a fact checker for The New Yorker and marrying a model.

McInerney's dream of writing novels started badly. He got divorced, lost the New Yorker job and turned to book reviewing for The Village Voice and other publications. Early attempts at journalism showed no aptitude there -- no interest in facts, is how McInerney has put it.

But then Raymond Carver discovered him. Impressed with McInerney's talent, Carver got him a fellowship for the graduate writing program at Syracuse University, where he studied for three years and compiled Bright Lights.

That book's publication in 1984 took New York by storm. Suddenly McInerney was a celebrity, photographed at all the New York hotspots and profiled relentlessly in hip pubs like Spy magazine. He was hailed as a genius who'd captured the whole of the '80s in less than 200 pages, capturing a period of change that seemed so important at the time (and seems like such a fleeting blip now).

This is how bad it got: At a movie premiere in 1987, paparazzi were so anxious to get a picture of Jay with his new girlfriend that they knocked Ellis' girlfriend to the ground and literally ran over her.

McInerney has never repeated the notoriety of Bright Lights; in fact, reviewers have trashed all his subsequent novels and reveled in chronicling his fall from grace. He's very proud of his third book, Story of My Life (1989) -- another tale of fast-paced big-city living, but told in the first person by a female protagonist. It's said that McInerney nailed the female narrative (NO pun intended), perfectly capturing not only the thought patterns but the voice and the tone of a woman in ways that have eluded the greatest of male writers.

McInerney is a very talented writer, but when it comes to his fiction, you have to wonder if his good ideas are already all used up. Brightness Falls (1992) tracked his usual yuppie characters in a later phase of life. The Last of the Savages (1996) put McInerney in another mindset entirely: the aging hippie emerging from the '60s. But Model Behavior (1998) brought McInerney back to his roots, recycling the autobiographical elements of his first novel. Its main character is again a writer, again living in New York, again married to a model from whom he is estranged.

McInerney might not prefer to write non-fiction, but he's very good at it. In 2000, he finally published his first non-fiction book, Bacchus and Me, a tour of the wine world from the eyes of an amateur. McInerney has no formal wine training but a real enthusiasm for the stuff, which led a friend to offer him a freelance gig writing the "Uncorked" wine column for House & Garden. Apparently he's built up a good knowledge of wine, but he just doesn't speak the language of wine critics, and the combination makes for an educated but accessible style.

As of 2001, McInerney is back in Manhattan after trying the country life in Nashville with his third wife, Helen Bransford, with whom he had twin sons via an egg donor and a surrogate mother (Helen was 43 when they got married). Neither Nashville nor the marriage worked, and McInerney's back in Manhattan, a little wiser and hopefully not bitter.

I saw McInerney at a reading sometime around 1996. He comes across as likeable and funny. Like any one-hit wonder, he feels imprisoned by his success, but he's not stupid -- he knows his celebrity has brought him readers, and even if the critics all hate him, he's grateful for the audience.

Like I said, many people find McInerney's stuff precious and overdone: "His rehearsed hipness is so uptight it hurts," writes reviewer Stephanie Zacharek of Salon, noting that Savages bares McInerney's desperation to be F. Scott Fitzgerald. She's got a point. But I'll always have a soft spot for Bright Lights. I envy its curtness, its cocky attitude, and its sour-toned similes ... all elements I'd love to infuse into my own writing. It's the book I wish I could have written.

Sources:
-- Bio blurbs from his books and a lecture flier
-- Various salon.com articles, but especially http://www.salon.com/weekly/mcinerney1960527.html
-- And of course: http://www.jaymcinerney.com

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