Big City, Bright LightsBright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney, Vintage Contemporaries paperback original, 182 pp., $5.95.
You never intended to read this book; in fact, you didn't know it existed. You went into the bookstore to get something to read for the rest of your lunch hour. Bright Lights, Big City stared off the shelf at you.
You picked it up cautiously. "Splendid ... The Catcher in the Rye of the MBA set," trumpeted the inside cover. You snickered; how grotesque, a Yuppie Salinger. You skimmed the first page, just for laughs.
You walked down the aisle. You came back and picked up Bright Lights, Big City and read a couple more pages, just to see how the chapter was going to turn out. You realized you were going to end up buying the book. You headed for the cash register.
In the next three days you read the book two and a half times, marveling at McInerney's command of the language. He can use verbs like a sportswriter and he sounds more like Hunter S. Thompson than Salinger: "You know there is a special purgatory waiting for you out there in dawn's surly light, a desperate half sleep which is like a grease fire in the brainpan."
The whole book is written in the second person. By the end of it, you have decided that the first and third persons are now obsolete for novelistic purposes.
You ask around: has anyone read this book? Has anyone heard of this book? The most encouraging responses you get are, "Oh, yeah, that's by what's-his-name" and "Didn't someone review it for The Tech a while back?" You are unable to locate the review and decide to write another.
The unnamed hero is a young college graduate working for an unnamed magazine that seems to be The New Yorker. He is going downhill fast. His wife, a model named Amanda who never quite sounds real, has left him.
He is investing lots of time and little interest in cruising nightclubs with his friend Tad Allagash. He is doing too many drugs, principally cocaine. He is unable to pull himself together at work and his boss, who "a mind like a mousetrap and a heart like a twelve-minute egg," is about to fire him. He feels he isn't as bright as he used to be. He decides he has nothing to look forward to. He is considering starting a Brotherhood of Unfulfilled Promise.
The marvelous lunacy of the first 68 pages prepares you for a truly bizarre re-entry to sanity, but the book loses a little momentum as the hero begins to get back on track by exploring the roots of his depression and realizing the importance of family. Even though you realize McInerney is saying something important about priorities, you get the impression he had pulled out a formula ending that would be easy for high school English teachers of the future to analyze: "The past is important; when in doubt, go back to your roots."
But you can't complain too much. Expressions from the book like "the night has already turned on that imperceptible pivot where 2 am changes to 6 am," and "sexual orientation: largely theoretical," and have become part of your vocabulary for looking at the world. Bright Lights, Big City is one of the best finds all summer.