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

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Arts and Entertainment
Full throttle: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in God's Pocket
film
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie Minogue is expected to return to Neighbours for thirtieth anniversary special
tv
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be Lonely Island's second Hollywood venture following their 2007 film Hot Rod
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Day-Lewis stars in the movie There Will Be Blood
music
Arts and Entertainment
Brush with greatness: the artist Norman Cornish in 1999
art
Life and Style
Stress less: relaxation techniques can help focus the mind and put problems in context
art
Arts and Entertainment

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

    It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
    Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

    Besiktas vs Arsenal

    Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

    The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

    Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment