The seedy glamour of the downtown glitterati. Fashion models with souls of stone. Wannabe writers burned out before their time. Turns out Jay McInerney is the sort of guy who belongs in a place like this.
It’s been more than 10 years since Bright Lights, Big City made its author a literary superstar, the hipster minstrel of after-hours Manhattan. And now McInerney returns to his old neighborhood — or at least a very similar one — in a sharp little novel (along with seven short stories) that could almost be read as a sequel. Like Bright Lights, Model Behavior is set in the New York magazine world, only this time its hero has been promoted from coke-head fact checker to self-loathing profile writer. As in Bright Lights, he attends many fab fetes, has a disdainful female boss, and nurses a broken heart over his flown-the-co-op model girlfriend. Bolivian marching powder even makes a cameo.
But different decades, different themes. The club-hopping, powder-snorting excesses of the ’80s have been replaced with a more ’90s-style obsession: the celebrity culture. Fame is the drug everyone in these pages is hooked on. Movie-star fame, literary fame, even (make that especially) fashion-model fame. ”Models,” as one of Model‘s characters puts it, ”are the apex of consumer society. Pure image. Actors have to speak. They have to simulate personality. They have to actually do something…. Modeling is the purest kind of performance, uncomplicated by content.” Of course, McInerney knows a bit about both subjects. After Bright Lights took off, his own nightclub antics made him a regular fixture in New York’s gossip columns, particularly when he was dating model Marla Hanson. All that partying at the Palladium didn’t do much for McInerney’s image as a Serious Author, but it did come in handy as fodder for this book (there’s even a Hanson-like slashing in Model). Ditto McInerney’s adventures in the screen trade, when he went out to Hollywood to script the Bright Lights film (the best short story in Model is about a sneaky screenwriter who blackmails his evil producer).
So far, critics have been vicious about Model — sniping at its similarities to Bright Lights, sneering at the shallowness of its subject matter — but then, critics have always been snobbish with McInerney. It’s a shame, because more than any of his fellow Brat Packers (Bret Easton Ellis, Tama Janowitz), McInerney is the real thing, a writer of undeniable flair and charm. Also one with guts (nobody read it, but his underrated 1988 novel, Story of My Life, told from the point of view of a female protagonist, was actually a pretty clever experiment).
Model Behavior isn’t a perfect book: Its take on celebrity journalism, for instance, is sometimes off (note to Jay: Even the dumbest movie stars know enough not to offer cocaine and hookers to reporters visiting their hotel suites). But it does chase a timely topic (the ’90s fixation on fame is also the subject of Woody Allen’s new flick, Celebrity, with Leonardo DiCaprio as a paparazzi-hounded star), and pursues it with more style and wit than it’s getting credit for. True, the terrain is not altogether unfamiliar, but so what? Frankly it’s a kick having McInerney back in town. B