Jay McInerney's first night back in America begins at Elio's, his neighborhood watering hole, with a negroni straight up, a cigarette and what the narrator of McInerney's first novel (speaking to himself) called "the most shameful of your addictions" -- a perusal of the New York Post.
Tonight, the story that grabs McInerney isn't about a Coma Baby, Killer Bees or Hero Cops. It's about Jay McInerney, quoted yesterday on his British book tour, confessing old romantic sins to a London reporter.
"I always say more than I should the farther I get from home," the well-tailored, 43-year-old crows, his voice pitched to permanent, cocktail-party expansiveness, his jet lag adding a wrinkle or two to his bluff, still-youthful good looks. "Sometimes I think everything I touch turns into a Page Six item."
The suspicion is forgivable. Since Bright Lights, Big City hit the shelves in 1984, McInerney has yet to stray out of reach of the spotlight. His wild nights have become matters of public record, his breakups public bloodbaths, his pronunciamentos public stinks. Often scorned or dismissed by the New York reviewing establishment, McInerney has attracted a small core of literary defenders. In the meantime, he has become a household name, someone famous -- as, he has observed, few writers since Norman Mailer have been -- simply for being famous. In other words, a celebrity.
Is it worth it? That is the question at the heart of Model Behavior, the title novella of McInerney's new collection out from Knopf, a work McInerney calls "my meditation on celebrity journalism and the cult of celebrity, which has obviously become our national religion in the last 10 years."
The novella follows two young men, each in his own way a victim of New York's star system. There's painfully camera-shy, head-turningly handsome Jeremy Green, anxious over the reception of his forthcoming first collection, "a gloss on Thoreau -- with a nod to Poe's 'Cask of Amontillado' -- in which the island of Manhattan serves as a dystopian mirror for the pond of Walden, a septic ecosystem which drives its inhabitants to despair and suicide."
Then there's Jeremy's best friend: slick, social Connor McKnight. Connor has problems of his own. His girlfriend, a model named Philomena, won't sleep with him. Neither will Pallas, the stripper who haunts his dreams. His sister seems to be descending once again into anorexia. He hates his job, interviewing celebrities for CiaoBella!, a young women's magazine. And for some reason, his latest subject, Chip Ralston -- a boy star from hell who seems to have caught the eye of both Philomena and Pallas -- won't return his calls.
It doesn't take Sigmund Freud to see a little of McInerney in his latest fictional creations.
In 1984, McInerney was a 29-year-old lapsed grad student and self-described "literary geek" with one brief, unhappy marriage behind him, a new wife (philosophy student Merry McInerney) and a worshipful friendship with his teacher Raymond Carver. He never expected Bright Lights -- his now canonical account of cocaine-snorting junior glitterati in Gotham -- to make it big when his old friend Gary Fisketjon, then a senior editor of Random House (and a biographical source for the narrator's corrupter, Tad Allagash), decided to issue the book as the first of its Vintage Original paperbacks.
Neither did Jason Epstein, executive editor of Random House at the time and éminence grise of the Vintage line. "He said to me, 'There hasn't been a New York novel since I've been alive and don't be surprised if no one wants to know about it,' " McInerney recalls. "It sounds stupid now, but in 1984 that was the conventional wisdom." Random didn't even spring for a party to launch the book.
Then came the glowing reviews and a call from Amanda Urban (who has agented McInerney's subsequent books). And, surprisingly, brisk sales. (The novel has sold 1,000,000 copies to date, according to Vintage.) Before long, the geek was the man of the hour.
"I would have imagined myself to be someone like Jeremy," McInerney says, "until I got the French kiss of popular acceptance. You never know what you'll do until you're in that embrace."
What McInerney did was party. Between his ostentatious drug use ("I've done my best to become a flat-out drug addict, and I've failed") and his well-publicized erotic imbroglios, McInerney became a favorite target for gossip columnists. His second marriage ended in divorce, public recriminations and a mordant roman à clef by Merry about Jay's failings as a husband. At the same time, his next two novels, Ransom and The Story of My Life, bombed with the New York literary establishment, which he claims singled him out for shabby treatment. "I got a bad rap," he says.
McInerney chalks up some of his bad press to resentment. "I think a lot of the people who write about me think that if they had to write fewer interviews then they would transcribe their life-story and it would be a big success. Or should be."
Could all the bad reviews and snide profiles be products of jealousy?
"No, it's something else too. I collaborated in the creation of my own image as a generational spokesman. It was very easy to read me as the protagonist of my own book, as the symbol of the very thing I claimed to be criticizing. For a long time, it seemed like, 'One more interview, one more photo, how can it be a bad thing?'"
McInerney is quick to distinguish his willingness to please reporters from the self-promotion of Tama Janowitz, a writer often described in the 1980s as a member of McInerney's "Brat Pack," who drew criticism for appearing in paid advertisements after the success of her first story collection, Slaves of New York. "I still think the idea of a writer doing an ad is appalling. I was offered a Dewars profile and a Gap ad, and I didn't do things like that because the day you take money to be an actor, then you're a whore. Tama was embracing this celebrity culture in ways that pointed at the dangers of it all." Indeed, McInerney is still bitter at having been associated with a "pack" of other writers at the height of his popularity. "I was really mad when this school started being created, because I had less to gain than anybody. I was the one who'd been there first."
In 1990, McInerney struck back. In an essay that put him on the cover of Esquire (brandishing a samurai sword), he lashed out at the country's most prominent critics, claiming that they were prejudiced against young writers. At the same time, he dismissed the latest work of the two young writers most closely associated with him, Janowitz and Bret Easton Ellis (whom he calls "still one of my closest friends"). And, although nobody knew it at the time, he set to work on the novel that would ultimately regain him wide, if grudging, critical respect.
By the time Brightness Falls, his sweeping, Dawn Powellish satire of the publishing world, appeared in 1992, McInerney seemed to have silenced many of his enemies and left his rowdy ways behind. He was married again, this time to a woman seven years his senior, jewelry designer Helen Bransford, and the couple had settled near her ancestral home outside Nashville, returning only occasionally to their Upper East Side pied-à-terre. McInerney seemed to be enjoying the role of the Southern gentleman (although he grew up the son of an itinerant paper executive, McInerney says he has "a lot of memories and interest in the South"). Twin children followed in 1994 and, soon after, a fifth novel, The Last of the Savages, which drew on McInerney's admiring observations of the Southern aristocracy.
Return to Gotham
Model Behavior represents a return to the New York scene, one that mirrors McInerney's own renewed interest in the city. About the time he finished The Last of the Savages, McInerney says, "suddenly there was this general vitality, which always corresponds, though most of us cultural types don't like to admit it, to an economic boom."
Not coincidentally, perhaps, McInerney found himself back in the newspapers -- this time not in the role of an up-and-coming young Jeremy Green but cast, instead, in a role more proleptic of roving-eyed Connor McKnight.
In the turn of events that McInerney calls the autobiographical "backdrop" to Model Behavior, Harper's Bazaar hired him to write a profile of movie actress Julia Roberts. Although he refuses to say how intimate he and the starlet became, the tabloids made much of their acquaintance, and McInerney himself felt that he'd stepped over the line between acceptable collaboration with the celebrity industry and collaboration tout court.
"I went out for three nights running with Julia till three in the morning and had a great time. But I felt horribly complicit in the end."
The profile had fateful consequences. In Welcome to Your Facelift: What to Expect Before, During, and After Cosmetic Surgery -- a book based on her own experience -- Bransford claims that it was McInerney's infatuation with Roberts that made Bransford decide to go under the knife. The profile also spurred McInerney to undertake a novel from the point of view of a writer who finds himself trapped on the receiving end of a condenser mic -- and whose only escape is to join the tinseltown he chronicles. Connor manages this feat, after Jeremy dies in a freak accident, by adapting one of his stories (called "Model Behavior") for the big screen.
This fictional escape, McInerney insists, reflects a real, pernicious social trend. "Hollywood has been gradually stealing the rest of the culture away. That is what this book is about: finally Connor g s Hollywood. Look back at 1984, about the time when Tina Brown invented this mix of hot gossip celebrity stuff, serious bulletins from Rwanda and political and literary coverage. If it was 30% celebrity stuff then and 70% of the other stuff, now it's reversed. Take Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg! Who would have given a flying fuck about these people 10 years ago?"
If Model Behavior shows McInerney's disdain for what celebrity is doing to our culture, it also shows a more personal fear of what celebrity does to celebrities. Connor sells out, but Jeremy dies -- killed off, one senses, before success can spoil him. He seems too good, or too principled, for the world of McInerney's imagination. After naming a couple of possible real-life models for Jeremy, young writers hardly known for their reclusiveness, McInerney admits, "There aren't many shy writers left. But it's a novel. I needed someone antagonistic to the triumphant pop culture of the day, the triumphant Hollywoodization of the world."
And, it seems, to the Hollywoodization of the self. "Anybody who becomes a movie star becomes successful at projecting a certain image to the public," McInerney says. "It's almost silly to say, 'Who are they really?' They're being fawned on and serviced in such a way that the reality of being a movie star becomes more real than any of that."
Is McInerney describing himself?
He chuckles. "I wasn't gonna say that." Clearly, the thought has occurred to him and to the people around him, including fellow author Mailer, whom McInerney calls his "hero" and close friend.
"After Bright Lights, it interested Norman to see me become a public figure in a way that hadn't happened in a while. Two months ago I was bitching about all this celebrity stuff to him, in a way that you only can with someone like that, and he said, 'Don't knock it, kid. You have one thing that most writers will never have, and that's persona. You may have to fight it all your life, but don't undervalue the fact that you have it.'
"He also said to me, one day when we were walking out of some big function and getting our pictures taken ad nauseam, 'Be careful. I'm not sure if you know this, but these flashbulbs bleach your soul.'"