RETURN OF THE MAC

His glittering debut novel of Eighties New York brought Jay McInerny fame, fortune - and a club-hopping, bad-boy persona he tried hard to escape. But now he's back - and it seems he wants to rejoin the party
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The Independent Culture
TWELVE YEARS ago, when his first novel, Bright Lights, Big City, was being filmed, Jay McInerney spent some time in New York with Michael J Fox, who played the hero, a character not unlike McInerney himself. Fox, a bigger star then than he is now, wanted to buy some jewellery for his girlfriend, and asked McInerney to help. They went to Tiffany's. The staff didn't recognise Fox, let alone McInerney, so they got no special treatment. The customers, and the people outside on 57th Street, did recognise Fox. There was a small riot. The two men beat a retreat, still empty-handed.

It wouldn't happen now. The staff at a high- society jeweller's, itself made famous by literature and the movies, would know who Michael J Fox was, and very likely McInerney too. New York in the late Nineties is beginning to be likened to New York in the late Eighties, but there is at least one clear difference. Celebrity is the new high society. And McInerney is more famous than most novelists.

That film flopped, but it helped the book sell a million and become a contemporary classic. Hard on the heels of the success came a persona: the novelist as party animal. "The image of Jay McInerney, author of Bright Lights, Big City, was kind of a club-hopping bad boy - model-dating, brash, bratty, a slightly-too-smart-for-his-own-good kid." And this is how he puts it himself.

He has spent some of the time since trying to dismantle that image, and a full decade has passed since he last published a book set in that world. But now, 14 years after first pinning down that slice of Manhattan life - magazines, parties, restaurants, drugs, educated young men, elusive young women - McInerney is back in town. His sixth novel, Model Behavior, does for the Nineties what Bright Lights, Big City did for the Eighties. It is just as stylish, just as sharp, not quite as sad, but, if anything, funnier. New York, New York: so good he nailed it twice.

It's a book that will delight some readers and disappoint others. There are so many one-liners, it's like reading a string of pearls. One character greets another with "that special condescension that thin women who look good in clothes reserve for voluptuous women who look better without them". When the hero, a magazine writer, finally persuades his girlfriend, a model, that it's time to resume their sex life, her assent takes this form:

"Fast," she commands, "and no sweating."

There are plenty more in the same league, but even as you chuckle, you may be asking what he is doing on this old turf. If Story of My Life (1988) could be dismissed - and generally was - as a female spin on Bright Lights, his next novel, Brightness Falls (1992), was a much bigger book. He was still homing in on young, affluent, no-kids-yet New York, but also tackled the politics of work, the economics of the Eighties boom and the ethics of corporate raiding, as well as painting a fine portrait of a marriage.

Next, McInerney got out of town altogether, in life and art. With his third wife, a Southern belle turned New York gallery-owner named Helen Bransford, he moved to Tennessee, had children, rode horses, posed for photographs Clinton-style in jeans and cowboy boots, and wrote The Last of the Savages (1996). This was a sweeping study of the Sixties, set in the South, encompassing the music business - fertile ground, largely ignored by upmarket novelists - as well as relations between the races, the history of the South, the nature of male friendship, and the choice between the old ways and the new freedoms. After that, isn't Model Behavior a backward step, a return to the shallow end?

BEFORE I can raise this with McInerney, he raises it himself. We are eating in a tent at a literary festival, where he is to make a couple of the stage appearances that are now an established part of an author's duties. The venue is Hay-on-Wye, on the English-Welsh border. Ten seconds in, it's Jay on why.

"I'm running into a little bit of initial reaction which is, `Why did you write it? You already wrote the funny books about New York.' My feeling is, people used to complain about John Cheever writing about the suburbs all the time, but what would we want him to have done? He defined a whole world, for all time I guess. Or Raymond Carver - on the Pacific North- West. I have certain strengths which it would be foolish of me to constantly work against. I want to grow as a novelist, but how many landscapes, how many modes of narrative is one novelist expected to command?"

He orders the spiciest of the dishes on offer, chicken korma, and the plainest of the drinks, mineral water, and explains that Model Behavior came to him as the germ of a short story, as most of his novels have. "I started it as a rest, a change of pace in between drafts of my last book. It was just a relief to work on a voice-driven, comic novel." A rest, a relief: in other words, he finds it easier to write the light stuff. It's not exactly a crime. Later he says: "Critics and feature-writers tend to ascribe more intentionality to the activities of fiction writers than actually exists. That is to say, I don't really know why I started writing this novel. I was just ... fooling around. So I'm partly inventing all this after I've finished it."

Starting off earnest, ending up breezy, this speech seems to trace in miniature the path he takes at the keyboard. McInerney is a writer of great facility, but the ease seems hard-won. This latest book is beautifully phrased, with a particularly neat finale, but it turns out that he wrote five endings before he was satisfied. And you sense that it may be the same with the man, that he may have had to work at being easy and pleasant. He is the eldest of three sons of an Irish-Catholic paper- company executive, middle-class, comfortable rather than grand. His father came from Boston but his job took him all over the place, even to Surrey: Jay was a new boy at no fewer than 18 schools. If he loves New York, it may be because it is the town with the most new kids in. And if he loves a party, maybe it's because he still can't quite believe he is wanted. As he once said: "No one ever thought I was handsome until I was a famous author."

GEOGRAPHICALLY, McInerney has gone backwards. In 1991 he and Helen Bransford started spending most of their time in rolling rural Tennessee, complete with cats, dogs, goats and pigs. "As fast I was consuming New York, it was consuming me," he told a glossy magazine in 1996. But by the time that piece appeared ("Bright Lights, Big Country"), they had sidled back to New York - or at any rate reversed the balance, so that the country is just for holidays and getaways. They had kept on their Manhattan apartment, but needed more space for their infant twins, so they asked the owner of the apartment above if he was prepared to sell. This was Stephen Fry, with whom he shared the stage at Hay. "A man who is so polite," McInerney says, "that when I asked him whether I could buy his apartment, he apologised for not having thought of it himself."

Back in New York, McInerney saw the city through fresh eyes. "I started feeling a new energy, a new Zeitgeist slouching into town, and suddenly New York seemed to be getting very interesting again. It might have just been personal, a question of my own exhaustion and refreshment, but I try to assume that these instincts of my own in some way correspond to something" - he puts a hammy stress on the word, and his deep, languid voice goes up an octave - "that's happening in the culture. And now it's pretty obvious that New York has regained its effervescence. Certainly economically it's an incredible boom time at the moment." As much as it was 10 years ago? "Actually more, but because of the flamboyance of the money culture in the Eighties, there's not quite as much flaunting as there was then. Everything seems a little more discreet and less crazy than the Eighties, but it's partly a reaction to them, people can remember. Stretch limousines just aren't cool this time round. Used to be, everybody you knew was riding around in a stretch limousine practically."

Including you?

"Ah well y'know" - a shimmer of embarrassment - "the movie companies would send them."

Not your publisher?

"No. We're talking books here!"

He stops, and says he's wary of talking about the Eighties and the Nineties "here in London" - an easy mistake to make in a marquee at Hay-on-Wye, where the air is not exactly thick with Welsh or Herefordshire accents - "because it seems to me you're living through what we called the Eighties now. There's a kind of renaissance of London. For all the radical changes that Thatcher brought to Britain in the Eighties, it doesn't seem to me that they really resulted in the buoyant economy that we had, until more recently. To take a small symptom, I never really saw cocaine around in London in the Eighties" - he obviously didn't meet any bond dealers - "and now I can't get even get into a bathroom in Soho because everybody's bumping up." This is said with some relish. "You read the music magazines and all these guys like the Gallagher brothers are flaunting their use of cocaine. Fifteen years ago American pop stars were doing it, but nobody would dream of doing it now. First of all, American pop stars are doing heroin and not cocaine. Secondly, we went through such an epidemic of cocaine 10 years ago, 15 years ago that it's not cool to talk about it. It's not that it's gone away - again like the limousines, people don't flaunt. But here you read about the guys in Blur and Oasis, the occasional drug bust. There's a cocaine culture here. And then the art scene in London in the Nineties has exploded - Damien Hirst is a big celebrity, he's Schnabel. And since Trainspotting you even have a literary generation, so-called, that's like the Brat Pack, so-called, like some of us were."

AND THEN there are the things the two big cities have in common in the Nineties. Three of them are themes of Model Behavior - and major differences between it and Bright Lights. The first is a sense, however faint, of what is going on in the wider world. One of his better characters expresses concern about Bosnia and Rwanda, whereas the only foreign country to feature in McInerney's early work was Bolivia, and strictly as a source of marching powder.

The second thing is celebrity. As a profile writer for a mid-market magazine, the hero spends his day trying to get in with the famous, while also being well-known enough himself to attract the unhealthy attentions of a fan: he stalks, and he is stalked. The critics, who tend not to be McInerney fans, have accused him of not being savage enough in his attack on celebrity culture. But beneath the smooth surface of the prose, there is no mistaking the tailfin of anger. "We've reached this appalling stage in the evolution of the culture," McInerney says, "whereby the great chain of being seems to be defined by our distance from these empty luminaries, or our connection to them, however vague. Usually people who portray fictional characters on screen. I don't really have anything against actors per se, but I find movie stardom of the late-20th- century variety ridiculous. In the Elizabethan era, actors were ranked somewhere lower than tapeworms in the general order of things. It's an indication of a collapsed value system when the highest rung in the social order is occupied by these people who are essentially not anything.

"To take one random example, Kevin Costner qua Kevin Costner does not have an identity. As compared to, say, Martin Luther King, he is a fairly negligible entity. And yet, who ranks higher in our scheme of things? And I include you guys [Britons] in this as well, `cause I see the same morons on the cover of your magazines that we have on ours, allowing for some regional variation, like soccer stars."

Well past warm, he is now boiling over to his theme. He catches himself doing it. "But now I'm sounding a little bit shrill, when in fact one of the points of doing a comic novel was that otherwise you could sound as if you're chasing butterflies with sledgehammers."

The other thing that has changed since Bright Lights is our level of self-consciousness. That novel was unusual in being written entirely in the second person. Model Behavior goes a step further, being written in a mixture of the first, second and third person - a page or two of one followed by a page or two of another (the chapters are breathlessly short, like articles or ads). McInerney, who is more erudite about books than his books let on, is not aware of another novel written this way. So if nothing else, the book should make syntactic- al history. The purpose is to convey the self- consciousness of the times. "As wild and crazy as the Eighties were supposed to have been, there was a real naivety there, when you look back. People now - everybody, not just people like us in the media world - are so media- savvy, so advertising-savvy. Even the most rabid fan is self-conscious about the way in which all our experiences are packaged for us."

Self-consciousness may be hard to get away from these days, but if you pursue it, it seems like a dead end. "Yes, ultimately it is. My intention was to make a somewhat metafictional narrative that ultimately worked in a realistic fashion." So you were having it both ways? "Oh I was trying to, yes absolutely."

THE DESCRIPTIONS that cling to McInerney, through a deep pile of press cuttings, are "boyish" and "sociable". Boyish he remains to an extent, though at 43 there is grey in the Guinness-black hair, and as the chipmunk cheeks draw in, and the pale blue eyes get a little baggy, you can just make out the old man he is going to be. As for social life, well, the man famous for being invited to every party in Manhattan - and turning up - has children now. There has been a dramatic concession. "I tend to try and stay home until they're asleep, around eight. And then I go out, as I always have." He has also renounced his morning lie-in - instead of rising at 10, he's up at eight to spend an hour with the kids before dropping them at nursery. Oh, and he has also given up the gym and the tennis court. The kids, now three, are called Maisie and Barrett - John Barrett McInerney III, to give him his full, unexpectedly conventional name. They were born, after Helen had a series of miscarriages, to a surrogate mother. McInerney is the biological father; the eggs were donated by a friend of his wife's, a country-and-western singer. The fathers in his books are remote figures, relics of another age, either daunting or risible ("Dad reads the classics - Grisham, Clancy and Crichton"). It makes you wonder what sort of dad he is.

"I've taken to it much more than I thought I would. I was a little bit reluctant about this whole enterprise because I was afraid that I just wouldn't be good at it. `What if I don't like it?' My wife insisted, she said, `This is absolutely what you need and you're going to be great.'" He speaks of her as a figure of some authority: elsewhere he has described her as the first person he'd been with for long who wasn't emotionally wounded or very needy. "The first year of parenthood was not very interesting to me," he says, with a self-centredness that ought to be more dislikeable than it is. "I was proud of them, but I was reserving judgement. But gradually it became more and more exciting to me. There is some moment when they are definitely individuals and it's wonderful after that. I'm really grateful now.

"I was terrified partly because of what I do. I thought writers, artists aren't necessarily supposed to have children, their work is supposed to be the progeny. And because of my temperament - I had never seen myself as a stay-at-home, warming-yourself-by-the-hearth kind of man. I've found that there are many ways you can do it. Of course you have to change your life around your children, but it doesn't mean you have to give up your old life and everything you loved about it, although many people masochistically pretend that."

At this point, I try and work out how rich he must be. One million-seller: say $1m in royalties. One screenplay: say $500,000. The subsequent novels have not sold as many as half a million each, but still, he's known around the world now. He must be doing well, or he would write more than the very occasional piece of journalism, which in America, at his level, is highly lucrative. And then his wife is reputed to be well-off in her own right.

Just in time, he adds: "Of course many people are financially constrained - they don't have the options that I do."

ONE ASSIGNMENT which did tempt him was a profile of Julia Roberts for Harper's Bazaar, the American fashion magazine. It turned out to be a wife-changing experience. McInerney went home enthusing a little too heartily about Roberts's charms. And this was the man, veteran of two failed marriages, who had written the line (in Brightness Falls): "All men need just four things - food, shelter, pussy, and strange pussy." Helen Bransford, who at 50 is seven years older than her husband and 20 years older than Roberts, responded by having cosmetic surgery, and wrote a book about it (Welcome to Your Face-lift) which made no bones about the connection between the two events. How does Jay feel about that?

"A little embarrassed. But I have to say that I've benefited from it. She looks great, as good as she did when I first met her, 14 years ago."

You don't have to read two pages of McInerney's fiction to see that he is a sucker for glamour. His first wife was a model, and so was his principal girlfriend between marriages two and three; that relationship, he says, is the one of which Model Behavior is a working-out. But somewhere inside him there is a more austere character, editor of two collections of other people's stories, well capable of standing back from the looks- ism of the age. "Modelling is the purest kind of fame," he writes in the new book, "uncomplicated by content."

Elsewhere he has his hero go and pick up the New York papers: "The Times because you're a serious guy. The Post because you're not." Even more than most of his fiction, that has the ring of the self-portrait. The man who falls for models also maintains strong friendships with fellow writers - notably Julian Barnes. They exchange faxes several times a week. Does he keep copies? "No, but Julian does."

The conversation wheels back to the question of persona. "There's a pretty well-defined take on me. What I resent is the idea that I am such a simple person that I could be summed up as a sort of symbol of the decadence of the Eighties. Anyone who's that simple-minded would be hard-pressed to write a short story, let alone a novel. As Scott Fitzgerald said, a novelist is more than one person. I hate to drag my betters into it, but ... " His voice tails off, for once.

"There is another side to it which I benefit from. Once when I was bitching about my press, Norman Mailer said, `Don't knock it kid, one of the most valuable things a writer can have is a persona. Most writers work their whole lives and never get one.' Certainly wasn't my problem."

McINERNEY'S career began with some famous first words - the opening sentence of Bright Lights, Big City. "You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning."

It broke all the rules (be specific, avoid repetition, mix long words and short, try a little punctuation) and yet did its job perfectly, pulling the reader in, hitting the right note, hinting at a world. The line has been quoted, paraphrased, parodied and envied ever since.

There's just one problem: this wasn't McInerney's first novel. He wrote one much earlier. The real first line of his career was not quite so distinctive: "Bring me another Martini, Jeeves."

The young McInerney hadn't even read PG Wodehouse - he just felt that butlers should be called Jeeves. He told this story himself when he went up on stage at Hay with Barnes and Fry. "At 12 I started my first novel," McInerney told a crowd of about 500. "I really wanted to write sophisticated metropolitan fiction."

"You did!" Julian Barnes cried. "You did!"

`Model Behaviour' is published on Thursday by Bloomsbury (pounds 14.99).

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