BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY
VINTAGE REISSUE, 182 PAGES, $12
YOU PICK UP a book. It's about a snotty-ass preppy guy on a downward spiral, which means he has to talk to people like you, people with shaved heads or frosted hair, because they are all he can meet at 6 a.m., the tail-end of a night on cocaine, which he cleverly and repeatedly refers to as "Bolivian Marching Powder." Oh yeah, and his sentences are really long.
When Bright Lights, Big City came out 20 years ago, in 1984, it was distinctive for being written entirely in the second person:
"You check the fridge; no beer. A finger of vodka in the bottle on the sink. Maybe you will go out and get a six pack. Or wander over to the Lion's Head? It's not impossible there to meet a woman avec hair, sans tattoo."
The book struck a huge chord with readers, and McInerney was an overnight celebrity. I read it quickly in the 80s, a time when there were a few other books out where the "downward spiral" of the protagonists meant they met people like my friends and me. I called this trend the "middle-class rationalization of self," and at the end of the books, the lead character would come to her senses and marry that guy, get a good magazine job and stay the heck out of nightclubs.
When I read one of McInerney's other books, Ransom, I was struck by his prowess; not bad, I thought. Bright Lights was not a fluke, or merely a book by a proficient writer who stumbled on a gimmick and a previously unchronicled zeitgeist. When I reread the book, I noticed a lot of zingers my younger self wasn't bright enough to see the first time around. His descriptions of everyday NYC life are both transcendent and horrific.
It's also an addiction book that lets you feel the burn, written before people confused recovery with entertainment. McInerney captures the numb greed of the compulsion to shove crap up your nose 24/7 so well that it's not really a funny book. There's some good gags, but it's too visceral to be light. The narrator's a mess, but not really sympathetic, which I like, being a big fan of the antihero. There's something balls-out about spewing judgments and invective every other paragraph, in a time when we've all become mealy-mouthed, and persona is increasingly confused with craft.
It's also very much a book about class, and I'm glad to say that this does seem dated. I remember the early 80s, when even my Dominican pimp hairdresser friend was aspiring to a preppy look. In Bright Lights, the fact-checking boss has adopted a new persona since attending Vassar, trying to fake a New England identity. The narrator's wife comes from a piss-poor background and adopts his own family in an attempt to catapult social classes. McInerney has a keen eye for nuances in speech and manner-when his narrator's striver of a wife, who's dumped him for a male escort, greets him with a "Ciao Bello," it just about sums it up. He might be a mess, but she's just not the right sort.
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