Brighter Lights, Bigger City
Nearly 30 years after writing the book that rocketed him into literary fame, Jay McInerney is at work on a new novel and still living the good life
by David Amsden photography Alex John Beck
Jay McInerney has been writing about New York for 30 years now, and to spend even a brief moment in his orbit is to discover how fully—how symbiotically—he has absorbed the city’s restless energy. The man fidgets. Constantly. Fidgets and frets and fiddles. On a sun-stippled afternoon not long ago, McInerney is in the living room of his penthouse apartment downtown, seated in a swooping mid-century armchair, swiveling back and forth, his blue eyes darting around the room with the zeal of a pinball. When he stops moving it is only to take off his velvety slippers, examine them, then put them back on, after which his attention is drawn suddenly toward the need to adjust the collar of his monogrammed white button-down shirt. There, that’s it. No, wait, there.
Once fixed, he resumes swiveling in half circles, all while articulately touching on a buffet of topics ranging from literature to monogamy to politics to youth to aging to restaurant culture. It is, in short, a dizzying ride, the McInerney Experience. You don’t feel that you are in the presence of a seasoned novelist two years shy of turning sixty so much as a jittery schoolboy deprived of his Adderall. You find yourself wondering how this man is ever able to anchor himself to a desk long enough to write a single sentence, let alone a complete book. Frankly, the notion seems improbable.
"I was wild. Driving way too fast, way too drunk. Doing way too many drugs. It was exaggerated sometimes, but there’s no denying I lived very recklessly for a long time.”
And yet the sentences—taut, nimble and flickering with observation—have kept coming. “Yup, I’m still going,” says McInerney with a wily chuckle, knowing as well as anyone the ways his career has defied the expectations set forth by the decadent persona he has cultivated, embraced and tried to squash over the years. “I don’t want to say I like writing, since it’s often very hard. But the satisfactions of making a really good sentence, of playing with words, are still, for me, among the greatest that exist.” He has produced 11 books now—eight works of fiction, three collections of his wine writing—and is these days closing in on his twelfth, to be published next year, his first novel since 2006. Coupled with his essays and journalism, it is an output that stands as testament to a persistent diligence that runs counter to the hard-partying image that has defined McInerney since 1984, when as a 29-year-old he became one of the most famous writers in the country with the publication of his first book, Bright Lights, Big City.
Written in the second person, the novel offered a real-time chronicle of an ’80s culture that was just beginning to take hold in New York: the clubs, the cocaine, the money, the excess, the ambition, the line where our collective self-obsession teetered on the brink of self-destruction. “I’m deeply proud of that book, and I think it holds up pretty well,” says McInerney, who grew up in the suburbs of Hartford, Connecticut. “But at the same time it was a very hard act to follow. A writer of a book like that is supposed to get stabbed by a model or crash his Porsche into a tree on the LIE late at night. That would have been a good career move in a lot of ways, you know?” Another fount of laughter. “To tell you the truth, sometimes I’m surprised it didn’t all end up that way given the way I was living then. I was wild. Driving way too fast, way too drunk. Doing way too many drugs. It was exaggerated sometimes, but there’s no denying I lived very recklessly for a long time.”
To talk with McInerney about his writing is, invariably, to talk to him about his personal life. The two have always been linked, though never quite as directly or obviously as many have assumed. “I think I’ve inadvertently made a laboratory of my life, always taking notes on the experiments,” he says, pulling his knees toward his chest and rocking in place. “Love, romance, sex, betrayal, relationships—it’s the raw material of most literature, and I seem to have gathered a lot of experience in that area.” Indeed, McInerney has been married four times, most recently to Anne Hearst, granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst and McInerney’s wife of the past six years. “Marriage is always an interesting subject for me,” he continues. “I’m intrigued by those people who negotiate the perils of staying together. Particularly in Manhattan, which I feel is to monogamy what the channel changer is to linear narrative. Manhattan’s kind of a place where the rhythm is like attention deficit disorder. Temptations. Distractions. This is a city that celebrates conquests of all kinds above everything.”
"Manhattan’s kind of a place where the rhythm is like attention deficit disorder. Temptations. Distractions. This is a city that celebrates conquests of all kind above everything.”
His current novel, which begins on election night of 2004 and ends on the same day in 2008, marks his latest mining of these themes. “It’s kind of a sequel to my last book, The Good Life, which itself was kind of a sequel to Brightness Falls,” says McInerney, referring to the novel, published in 1992, that first introduced readers to Russell and Corrine Calloway, a glittering New York publishing couple in whose fictional marriage McInerney has been able to explore resonant moments in the recent history. “I never thought I’d keep revisiting those characters, but they’ve just stuck with me over the years,” he explains. “Brightness Falls was set in 1987, right before and after the stock market crash, so through the Calloways I got to explore how that was affecting the city.” On a more personal level, McInerney returns to the Calloways because in their invented union he’s been able to live out a version of a life he once thought was his destiny. “When I first got married I never expected it was going to be the first of four,” he says, “so with Russell I kind of get to see what it would be like to stay married to your high school sweetheart. How’s he do it? What does that look like? It’s fun to be able to explore those questions in fiction. It’s a kind of way of exploring the ‘counterlife,’ to borrow Philip Roth’s great phrase.”
While many of his book have been set in New York, McInerney begins each one by leaving town for long stretches—a means of ensuring that his lifestyle in the city doesn’t get (too) much in the way of his remaining productive. “I borrowed George Plimpton’s house for Brightness Falls, and later James Salter’s,” says McInerney, who peppers his conversations with the names of prominent friends without ever sounding glib or cloying. “For this book there have been three or four periods of six to eight weeks when I go out to the country to hide at my place in Bridgehampton. Believe it or not, I don’t really socialize or see anyone except my wife and kids. I love the city, but it’s always beckoning to you. Someone’s always figuratively shouting from the street, ‘Come down and play!’ Sometimes literally. Patrick McMullan”—the society photographer—“lives nearby and will look to see if my lights are on whenever he walks by. So if I’m going to get anything done, at least in the beginning, I kind of have to get out.”
McInerney checks his watch, realizing that he’s running late. Tonight’s agenda includes a dinner, followed by an event, followed by another event, after which, who knows, maybe a drink or two with friends. “Yes, at the end of the day I am a pretty social creature,” he says. “Sometimes I’m amazed I ended up a writer, since it hardly fits my personality.” He pauses for a moment—for the first time during a few hours of conversation, in fact. Glancing around the airy apartment, filled with art and mementoes from the past, he sighs. “But I think I’ve done OK,” he eventually says, standing up to get ready for another evening out. “It’s a pretty good life.”