Books: The rise of the blue-eyed outlaw

The Last of the Savages by Jay McInerney Bloomsbury, pounds 15.99; Jay McInerney, once the hip Big Apple brat-packer, now has his sights on bigger themes. By John Walsh
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Around the turn of the Nineties, you could have been forgiven for assuming that the writers of New York's "Brat Pack" had decided to deal only in a single plot: an inverted morality tale, in which a group of rich, callow and high-fashion Manhattan sophisticates chat idly together while some scene of corruption, cruelty or murder is perpetrated in their midst and they barely notice. The characters could be young and zomboid (Less Than Zero) or clever and studenty (The Secret History), employed and wasted (Bright Lights, Big City), unemployed and wasted (Story of My Life), rich and successful (American Psycho) or classy but brainless (A Cannibal in Manhattan) - but they all seemed to partake of the same sterile zeitgeist.

Jay McInerney was notable among them for his spot-on mimicry of New York party conversation, Valley-girl vapidity and coke-snorter's etiquette; but when Brightness Falls, his last novel, began with a post-Yuppie Manhattan dinner party interrupted by the arrival of a street lowlife, you began to wonder: is there anything else these guys can write about?

I'm happy to report that McInerney's new novel offers a far more ambitious arena for his narrative skills - nothing less than three decades of Stateside history, in which the changing image of America is embodied in the existential shape-shifting of the main characters.

The narrator, Patrick Keane, is an Irish-Catholic middle-class Eng Lit fan from a New England mining town whose high-school room-mate is Will Savage, the cool, bearded, blues- loving scion of a Memphis dynasty of right-wing Southern entrepreneurs. From the start we know we are meant to admire Savage - with his extemporised lectures on the musical roots of slavery, his wad of racketeering money, his way with girls - as Keane becomes (slightly implausibly) his best friend. We know because the book starts with four instances of people asking about him, thus landing him squarely in the realm of mythology. And there are his eyes, variously described as "a brilliant supernatural blue, as startling as the sudden flash of the light on top of a police car", then as "bright blue verging to violet, like an acetylene flame", then as "raptorish".

As Patrick gets more preppie (he makes the lacrosse team, he befriends the "elitist jocks"), Savage gets wilder, gradually acquiring the trappingsof every countercultural snob you ever encountered in the early Seventies: hash, acid, beat poetry, Hermann Hesse, gurus, mantras, CIA conspiracies, you name it. Patrick visits the family homestead, enduring Will's excruciating backchat with the Mammy-like servants and checking out the raw blues talent in dingy local beer parlours. He also encounters Will's manipulative and bigoted daddy, Cordell, and falls for a sexy sophomore called Lollie Baker, who is destined to reappear at key points in the story and should be played in the movie by Uma Thurman. Will falls in love with a black girl, Patrick gets blooded on a duck shoot, and between the southern-Gothic hedonism of Memphis and Sixties college life in New England, McInerney pretty well covers the waterfront for baby-boomer nostalgics.

But where is this story bound? Everywhere you look, there are identities being shed and acquired, oppositions aching to be synthesized: the preppie who wants to be a hippie, the white boy who wants to be black, the Southern patriarch who co-opts the Yankee intruder, the pressure of history on the impulses of the present, the homosexual panic of the American het, the freedom generation heading for Vietnam... McInerney slides the counters around with skill and there's a frisson of excitement halfway throughthe bookas you sense a cataclysm drawing close. Will Patrick break free of the law-school rut he seems destined for? Is Savage going to revert to southern type and join tne Klan? Will they go to war?

The quality of his prose keeps sliding and changing too. Sometimes you reel with dismay at the stodgy cod-Mandarin of the narration: "I couldn't even imagine a girl yielding to me, except under the influence. Never mind that she was dating my friend's older brother; I was able to conjure away such minor logistical problems. But sobriety seemed insurmountable." But at other times, McInerney is back on his best Bright Lights form, as when regarding little Jimmy, an accordion-playing cousin: "Tiny as he was, my cousin seemed at times merely a passive appendage of the respirating instrument, a freakish child attached to a primitive life-support machine, trying to eke out another day on earth."

Amazingly, McInerney goes for a long, downward slide into predictability. Patrick goes to Yale and gets ever more stuffy. Savage hits the intellectual hippy trail from Ecuador to Ladakh and becomes a record-company mogul, his marriage to a feisty black girl subject to rollercoaster swings. And for 150 pages, we're given a chronicle of interesting times - Martin Luther King, race hatred, death, arson, moon landings, Edward Kennedy - in which the characters check in and out, acting typically. The past comes to haunt the story in an 1861 diary, detailing the execution of a troublesome black, but its relevance to 1971 is hardly explored. It's revealed that Patrick has been nursing a homosexual crush on Will Savage all along; and the book ends with a clever coup de theatre involving sperm and the titular family line, but by then the so-what factor has taken over.

Jay McInerney is a writer of immense charm. His novel pulls you gently into its folds, surrounds you with agreeable characters, amusing dialogue and pacey jump-cuts. But The Last of the Savages can't help being a big disappointment. Derivative in effects - the my-brilliant-buddy theme nods towards umpteen major American fictions, from Gatsby to On the Road; its big-house idyll derives from Brideshead, while the climactic scenes with Will Savage crazily ensconced in a tower could have come from a dozen Hammer movies - it ends up being an inconsequential family saga rather than the feat of imaginative synthesis that seemed on offer. For all its chameleon skill, it never quite decides what it really is.