”There was a backlash. I got so much attention for my first novel — and for everything that I did back then, every party I went to, every girl I dated — that people got sick of hearing my name. I don’t blame them. God knows, I got sick of hearing it.”
The note on Jay McInerney’s door says to ”Meet me out back.” Sure enough, there he is, skinny-dipping in the pool at his new home in Nashville. ”Three years ago, I couldn’t imagine leaving New York,” says the 37-year-old novelist after he paddles out of the water and puts on a pair of jeans. ”But I don’t miss it at all. This is a healthier lifestyle for a writer.”
Could this be the dawn of a brand-new Jay? The author of Bright Lights, Big City, the 1984 nightlife novel chronicling the cocaine-dusted adventures of New York’s ultrachic club crowd, has swapped downtown glitz for Dixie grits and is reinventing himself for the 1990s. Along with his new Tennessee digs (a cozy stone-and-stucco cottage), he’s settling down with a new wife, Helen Bransford, a 43-year-old Southern socialite whom he married in December after a whirlwind six-week courtship. There’s also a new best-selling novel, Brightness Falls, a big, ambitious book that’s finally burying his image as a literary lightweight and winning kudos from the critics for a change.
”I’m tired of people thinking I’m some drug-addled party boy,” he sniffs. ”I’m tired of being a symbol for all the excesses of the 1980s.”
Brightness Falls is, in part, a eulogy to those excesses. Like a baby Bonfire of the Vanities, it aims a panoramic lens at New York at the height of the Greed Decade, during the dizzy months prior to the 1987 stock market crash. The story’s hero is Russell Calloway, a young book editor who masterminds a leveraged buyout of his publishing house after he learns he’s about to get canned. Other characters include the usual literary scene suspects: There’s Victor Propp, an aging intellectual who has been living off advances for the same unwritten book for 20 years; Washington Lee, a coworker at Russell’s firm who’s more interested in nubile young editorial assistants than in postmodern trends in American fiction; and Jeff Pierce, a successful young short story writer with a dangerous taste for recreational pharmaceuticals.
”It’s not a roman à clef,” McInerney insists. But he’s having trouble convincing publishing insiders, who’ve been playing who’s who with the book’s galleys for months (Gary Fisketjon, McInerney’s editor and best friend since college, is rumored to be the model for Calloway; Harold Brodkey, author of The Runaway Soul, is said to be Propp; Pantheon editor Erroll McDonald is supposed to be Lee; and McInerney himself, Pierce). ”I’ll admit there are some thinly disguised people in the book,” he says. ”But this notion that every character corresponds to a real person is very tedious.”
Still, McInerney’s real bio has always borne more than a passing resemblance to his fiction. After a globe-trotting childhood (his father was an international sales executive for Scott Paper), he spent two years teaching English in Japan — just like the hero of his 1985 novel, Ransom. Back in the States in 1979, he had a short stint as a fact checker for The New Yorker and was briefly married to a fashion model — just like the unnamed narrator in Bright Lights. Eventually, he enrolled in the Syracuse University writing program, where he was taught by Raymond Carver. It was there, during the summer of 1983, that he banged out Bright Lights in just six weeks. Fisketjon helped get it published by Vintage Contemporaries in 1984, and by 1985 McInerney was back in Manhattan — along with a new wife, graduate student Merry Reymond — being feted as the king of the literary fast set.
”Suddenly all these doors were open,” McInerney recalls, forking into a plate of voodoo pasta during lunch at Nashville’s trendy Sunset Grill. ”I was essentially invited to do anything I wanted.” And he RSVPed with a vengeance. As Bright Lights became a smash best-seller (and eventually a Hollywood movie starring Michael J. Fox), McInerney became New York’s No. 1 literary glamour boy, the hipster laureate of the downtown demimonde. Paparazzi followed his every move; the tabloid press staked out his apartment; strangers pressed packets of Bolivian marching powder into his pockets. For a time, it looked like he had become a parody of one of his characters.
”I just did what came naturally,” he says. ”There were no signposts for my kind of literary celebrity. There were no role models. It should have been a great time, but it felt like the ceiling was falling in. My marriage to Merry broke up. I was reading about myself in gossip columns. It was horrible.”
The reception given his 1988 novel, Story of My Life, didn’t help matters: Critics hated it (”banal psychologizing,” James Wolcott called it in The New Republic) while readers seemed more interested in McInerney’s much publicized romance with model Marla Hanson than in buying the book (it only sold about 50,000 copies). The press wrote him off as a trendoid, lumping him together with the Brat Pack, a circle of chic young authors including Less Than Zero‘s Bret Easton Ellis and Slaves of New York’s Tama Janowitz. ”The malice of strangers,” McInerney fumes. ”It’s something you never expect until it hits you right in the face.”
Brightness Falls may be McInerney’s bid to make his name respectable again — likewise his late-inning conversion from New York city slicker to Southern gentleman. Or maybe it’s only Jay doing what he has always done best — anticipating the zeitgeist and capitalizing on it.
”I’m not cynical enough to think that way,” he protests. ”I moved to Nashville because I fell madly in love with a woman who happened to live here.” That woman, Helen Bransford, also happens to be a descendant of one of Tennessee’s oldest, most aristocratic families (her great-grandfather was secretary of state under President Taft). McInerney first met her at Elaine’s, New York’s preeminent literary hangout, seven years ago, but it wasn’t until last November that sparks began to fly. ”Marla had moved out of my apartment in September,” McInerney explains. ”I think she felt overshadowed. She used to say, ‘You’ve got this career and I’m just starting one.’ A few months later I was at this dinner party and Helen was sitting across the table. I’d known her for seven years, but suddenly it was like — wow! — I’m in love.” Bransford was surprised by the sudden turn of emotions too: ”My cardiogram usually doesn’t jump for friends,” she says, ”so it never occurred to me until that night that Jay was someone to actually date.” The two were married in a secret ceremony at New York’s city hall during Christmas week.
”There are some things I miss about New York,” McInerney finally concedes. ”I miss Barneys. I miss the ’21’ Club. I miss Elio’s. But you know what I’ve discovered? The thing about New York is that if you leave the party for six months, the moment you walk back in the room people are like, ‘Oh, were you gone for a minute?’ So if I miss it too much, I can always go back.”
They’re keeping a table open for him at Elaine’s.