McInerney, Jay (1984). Bright Lights, Big City. New York: Vintage.
This short (182 pp) novel of 1980’s New York City is widely praised as having nailed that period and place. I don’t know – I wasn’t there, but if accurate, the town was awash in cocaine.
The main character, an unnamed young man, works a drudge job at a magazine where the boss hates him. By night, he prowls bars and clubs, hanging out with his friends, drinking and snorting coke, looking for love, or at least sex. He was recently divorced by his wife, a fashion model he “discovered” in Kansas and brought to the city, so he is chronically depressed, amotivational, and directionless. After a major screw-up at work, he gets fired. That’s it. Oh yeah, and he loves his mother.
There is no plot, just a series of scenes about this fellow, addressed as “you” by the second-person narrator. That kind of narration is off-putting, and compared to first-person, seriously distances the reader from the character, limiting access to his thoughts, but maybe that was a good choice for a character who is hollow inside.
The character’s ennui is reminiscent of Walker Percy’s main character in The Moviegoer, but there was a lot more story in that book. McInerney’s character is a cipher and there’s no plot, so what do we have? Great writing. Despite the obnoxious second-person voice, the language is sophisticated, spare, well-observed, and very funny. The humor is wry and subtle, not the knee-slapping kind.
It’s a quick read and an easy page-turner because of the fine writing, which reminds me of the “New York School,” and Frank O’Hara’s prose poetry of the 1950’s – quite enjoyable, once you accept it on its own terms.