There are two surprises on the first page of Jay McInerney’s new book, and the big one isn’t the announcement of a multiple-stab-wound murder, but rather the revelation that our narrator is 46 years old. Forty-six! Can it really be true that the author of Bright Lights, Big City, the man whose literary voice embodied the excesses of youth just a decade ago, has grown up that much? Numerically speaking, no; McInerney himself is just 41. But with his fifth novel, The Last of the Savages, the bad boy of the ’80s seems to have entered a premature and melancholy middle age. And having repented the club-happy, glam-life sins of years gone by (premature literary celebrity always means having to say you’re sorry), he’s looked backward for inspiration: His new novel is all about the sins of the 1960s.
Patrick Keane (the narrator) is the smart, vaguely ashamed teenage son of working-class Catholic New Englanders who arrives at a snooty prep school just in time for the dawning of the age of Aquarius. He’s quiet, bookish, insecure, and completely awed by his roommate, a good ol’ WASPy Tennessee boy named Will Savage who is already high on the revolution — political, sexual, musical, and pharmacological — that Patrick is too innately cautious to join.
In the Protestant/Catholic, rebel/conformist dynamic that soon emerges, you may hear echoes of Brideshead Revisited, and a lot of other books revisited as well. The Last of the Savages rings variations on no fewer than four familiar genres (not to mention the collected works of F. Scott Fitzgerald): It begins as a prep school boy-bonding book in the rich vein of A Separate Peace, James Kirkwood’s Good Times/Bad Times, and countless others. When school holidays begin and Patrick heads down to Will’s Memphis manor, it becomes a baroquely screwed-up Southern-family saga, complete with dead brothers, drunken mothers, and rebel yells. As the decades wear on and Will and Patrick grow up and apart, it becomes a weren’t-the-’60s-a-wild-time novel. And from first page to last, McInerney stakes his claim to the friendship-that-changed-my-life genre, a narrative told by the sober and levelheaded yin that ends up being all about how the ebullient and self-destructive yang enriched his existence. (Just once, wouldn’t it be nice if a druggy, high-living nutcase wrote a novel about how much his friendship with a dork meant to him?)
McInerney is trying to do a lot in The Last of the Savages — he also finds room for musings about interracial marriages, the Civil War, repressed homosexuality, and the blues — and yet, for all his wrong turns and waltzes with cliches, it just about works. He has always been an elegant and witty writer, but here, the fluidity and comic grace of his prose is all in the service of storytelling rather than of show-offiness, and the sorrow that courses through Savages has tempered his glibness with regret.
And make no mistake: This is by far the saddest novel McInerney has written. Time may be unkind to Will, a troubled golden boy who becomes a fat, paranoid music producer, but it’s no more generous to Patrick, whose rueful, lonely middle years provide the novel with an emotional ballast (and a wrenching ending) that will surprise those who think the author is heading toward a smug neo-con condemnation of the ’60s. ”I am not strong enough to invent a role for myself outside of convention,” admits Patrick, attempting to sum up his relationship with Will near the end of his story, ”and I have watched others who have tried come to grief.” There’s self-knowledge in that statement, but also self-loathing and self-defeat. It’s a long way from 1984, when McInerney left the hollowed-out, coke-choked protagonist of Bright Lights, Big City stumbling toward a loaf of bread and the promise of clean living, signing off with the mantra ”You will have to learn everything all over again.” Twelve years later, he’s learned that salvation isn’t nearly so easy. B
The Last of the Savages