- Paperback: 208 pages
- Publisher: Vintage; 1st edition (Aug. 12 1984)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0394726413
- ISBN-13: 978-0394726410
- Product Dimensions: 13.1 x 1.5 x 20.2 cm
- Shipping Weight: 159 g
- Average Customer Review: 54 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #143,118 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Bright Lights, Big City Paperback – Aug 12 1984
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"Bright Lights, Big City is a brilliant and moving work—unique, refreshing, imaginatively powerful and authentically conceived."
—The New York Times
"Bright Lights, Big City defined, and even determined, the mood of this whole town."
"Short, sleek and very funny.... Beneath it's surface, though, a heart's cry for a saner, sweeter, more thoughtful and restrained existence."
"Each generation needs its Manhattan novel, and many ache to write it. But it was McInerney who succeeded."
—The New York Times Book Review
From the Inside Flap
The tragicomedy of a young man in NYC, struggling with the reality of his mother's death, alienation and the seductive pull of drugs.See all Product description
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That line sets the tone for "Bright Lights, Big City." Jay McInerney's bestselling debut stands above other urban-angst novels of the time, which tended to go with shock value. Instead, McInerney experimented with second-person narratives and a vision of a fragmented, coke-dusted New York.
"You" are a young man living in New York, and wife Amanda has recently left you for a French photographer she met on a modelling shoot. Understandably you are depressed and unhappy, and the loss of Amanda haunts your moods, especially when her lawyer urges you to sue her for "sexual abandonment," even though you don't want a divorce.
By day, you work in the fact-checking department of a prestigious magazine, where your malignant boss is getting tired of you. By night, you halfheartedly prowl clubs with your pal Tad, doing drugs and meeting women you care nothing for. Will you be able to move past your problems and become happy again?
Consider that summary a little slice of what "Bright Lights, Big City" sounds like -- the reader is the main character, which allows the reader to slip into another's skin for a brief time. Second-person narratives are often annoying, but McInerney's style is so starkly compelling that the little narrative trick pays off.
The New York of "Bright Lights, Big City" is basically a big, glitzy, hollow place, but still strangely appealing. And McInerney adds splinters of reality here and there, like the tattooed girl and Coma Baby, which add to the gritty you-are-there feel of the novel itself. His dark sense of humour comes out in "your" thoughts: "your" boss resembles "one of those ageless disciplinarians who believe that little boys are evil and little girls frivolous, that an idle mind is the devil's playground."
And while many trendy novels of the time relied on shock value and obnoxious characters, McInerney keeps it low-key. The young man is likable and sympathetic, despite his tendency towards self-pity. And the people around him -- the self-absorbed Amanda, likable Tad and nasty "Clingwrap" -- seem surprisingly realistic, as well as the minor people who flit in and out of our hero's vision.
"Bright Lights, Big City" has gained a reputation as a trendy urban novel of the 1980s. Too bad. Though the trendiness has worn off, McInerney's style and story are still worth reading.
It seems hard to account for the visceral loathing that Jay McInerney provoked in critics after publishing this best-selling first novel. Here's a typical comment from Weekly Wire:
Hot young actor Ethan Hawke's first novel, The Hottest State, is mostly reminiscent of what used to pass for literary writing in the 1980s: a first person narrative of a vapid young man living in New York City, told without allusion, metaphor or self-reference. Essentially, the kind of airport-novel-taken-as-art for which Jay McInerney and Brett Easton Ellis were once praised, and then later reviled.
Bad enough to be hammered like that, but to be lumped with the truly awful Bret Easton Ellis? Ouch! Perhaps it was simply the jealousy that authors always seem to feel towards successful fellow writers. Perhaps it was a generational thing; who was this punk kid to replace Hemingway's wine drenched Paris with a coke sprinkled New York? And, of course, his own generation was hardly going to defend an author who told them that they were all shallow and wasting their lives. Whatever the cause, the literary establishment has been so aggressively dismissive of him and this novel that liking it feels almost like a guilty pleasure. But I do like it very much.
The book is unusual in that it is written in the second person, which, combined with the tone, makes the whole thing read, appropriately, like an admonishment. It opens in a Manhattan night spot with the line: "You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning." But, of course, that is exactly the type of person that the nameless protagonist of the novel has become, hopping from night club to night club, looking for cocaine and women, with "no goal higher than pursuit of pleasure." He alternately avoids and seeks out his friend Tad Allagash (Tad calls the hero Coach, so we will too) because Tad represents the worst of his own personal tendencies, but is also a ready source of drugs. Coach is well on his way to blowing his job at a magazine that is a hilarious put on of the The New Yorker, with burned out writers haunting the hallways. Eventually he is fired after turning in an error filled piece on France that he was supposed to be fact checking. We also discover that his wife Amanda has recently abandoned him to pursue her modeling career. Coach has taken to wandering by a department store window that has a dress dummy modeled after her. Over the course of several days of avoiding responsibilities and the brother who is trying to contact him, abusing coke & booze at every waking moment, the remainder of Coach's life collapses around him.
McInerney's portrait of these young New Yorkers is truly devastating; they are all surface with no depth. Coach remains friendly with Tad because:
Just now you want to stay at the surface of things, and Tad is a figure skater who never considers the sharks under the ice. You have friends who actually care about you and speak the language of the inner self. You have avoided them of late. Your soul is as disheveled as your apartment, and until you clean up a little you don't want to invite anyone inside.
Coach had doubts about marrying Amanda because:
You did not feel that you could open quite all of your depths to her, or fathom hers, and sometimes you feared she didn't have any depths.
Meanwhile, he finds himself asking, "when did she become a mannequin?", because she is little different than her fiberglass doppelganger in the store display. When he meets her in a nightclub at the end of the novel, she is with an impossibly handsome young man who she claims is her fiancé, but he turns out to be an escort. The woman Coach is dancing with that night turns out to be transsexual. Noone is real, like the neon lighting in which their lives unfold everything is artificial; at best they are playing roles, at worst they are truly empty at the core (they have become the "Men without Chests" that C.S. Lewis warned of). Coach himself frames the episodes in his life as chapters from a novel, complete with titles. It's as if he is incapable of handling reality and must make a fiction of his own life, must turn himself into a literary construct.
Finally, as he hits bottom, Coach begins to rebound. His brother catches up to him and they discuss the loss of their Mother, who sickened and died a year earlier. Coach is, at last, able to confront his own sense of loss. He calls an old girlfriend and tells her: "I was just thinking that we have a responsibility to the dead--the living, I mean." The novel ends with him down at the docks, trading his sunglasses for some fresh baked bread. Hard to avoid pedantry here, but the bread pretty obviously represents the Staff of Life, the values of the heartland and the pleasures of hearth and home, as well as a means of resurrection--in the most fundamental sense, he is taking communion. Coach's decision to abandon the bright lights (he won't need the sunglasses anymore) and turn back towards the basics is a triumphal moment in modern fiction.
In an era when "white bread" has become pejorative, an author who has his hero saved by a bread roll is obviously trying to communicate something. It would be a shame if those same shallow folk whom the book is aimed at were to succeed in dismissing it as no more than a "drug book". It is a really fine novel and one of the few significant social fictions, along with Bonfire of the Vanities and Love Always (Ann Beattie), to emerge from the 80's.
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