This is a story about the unraveling of "your" world, as you come to realize that New York's never-ending cycle of parties, clubs and coke is emptying out your life rather than filling it. Coming off a train wreck of a marriage and the dawning realization that your fact-checking job will never land you a fiction assignment, you plunge into a dazed apathy. You essentially give up on a major work assignment, getting yourself fired. Your nights are a continuum of drugs and laughable sexual exploits -- a mix of striking out and accidental jailbait encounters -- and in your confusion you nearly destroy your friendship with co-worker Megan, possibly the only person on Manhattan who earnestly cares about you. As is often the case in literature, it turns out you have been running from an essential truth this whole time, one that you are only now beginning to confront. You will have to learn everything all over again.
An instant hit when it was published in 1984, Bright Lights, Big City captured the hyperkinetic spirit of early '80s Manhattan and catapulted Jay McInerney to stardom as part of literature's "brat pack," the cluster of new writers who were supposedly defining literature for the new era (meaning the 1980s). Like fellow brat packers Bret Easton Ellis and Tama Janowitz, McInerney became a New York celebrity, attending all manner of fabulous parties and gaining admission to the most expensive clubs. He became a regular in Manhattan's society pages and appeared relentlessly in magazines like Spy.
BLBC is written in the second person, which may have arisen because the book is so heavily autobiographical. The specific events of the story are probably pure fiction -- I doubt McInerney ever put a ferret in his old boss' office -- but the anonymous main character's backstory is a carbon copy of McInerney's life: Moved to NYC hoping to write fiction, wound up a fact checker for a prestigious magazine, married and eventually divorced a model.
I think the second-person narration gives it a nice atmosphere. Then again, I always wished I'd lived in New York City, so the gimmick has particular meaning for me.
The 1988 movie follows the book well, except that McInerney was forced to give the main character a name: Jamie Conway, played by Michael J. Fox. Fox was coming off the stardom of Family Ties and was still considered the quintessential yuppie, even though he only played one on TV. It wasn't a great movie, but Jaime's slick wannabe persona coupled with his more vulnerable side were a good mix for Fox. And Kiefer Sutherland was perfect as Jamie's bad-influence friend, Tad Allagash.
People sneer at BLBC as self-important yuppie trash, but I loved this book. It's well steeped in the broth of Manhattan life, from the clubland excitement to the pressured office environment to the mundanities of an evening in the apartment. I like the writing style, and I like McInerney's sense of humor, which plays an unexpectedly large role. (Contrast with the bleaker world of Less Than Zero; the two novels are often associated with one another but really come from different points of view.)
As an aside, I'm convinced that the TV show Herman's Head was partly derived from BLBC. The show was about an enterprising young fact checker who had a hard-partying yuppie friend and an office mate who was a true friend. Hmmm.