Author Jay McInerney explains the attraction of light

By Kiran Dass

Author Jay McInerney:  "I I just transferred my hedonisms".
Author Jay McInerney: "I I just transferred my hedonisms".

New York novelist Jay McInerney once said he had been fortunate enough to get a lot of mileage out of his vices.

When I ask him what he means, he laughs.

"I was doing lots of cocaine and vodka when I was young. Some people get nothing but hangovers and blown trust funds and trips to rehab. I wrote a bestselling novel. My hedonism paid off."

The bestseller in question is 1984's Bright Lights Big City, McInerney's sensational firecracker debut novel about a hedonistic fact checker at a highbrow New Yorker styled magazine, who also has a penchant for the fast lane of nightclubs and cocaine.

Follow-up novels Ransom and The Story of My Life consolidated McInerney, along with his hard-living friends Bret Easton Ellis and Tama Janowitz, as the new wave of minimalist writers labelled The Brat Pack, a tag McInerney rejects.

"Yes, our work has subject matter in common, you know, young urban people ingesting drugs and going to nightclubs. But I was already established as a writer and selling hundreds of thousands of copies."

When asked if he's a recovering hedonist, McInerney says at some point he just stopped staying out all night at clubs.

"I never really recovered, I just transferred my hedonisms."

His fourth novel, 1992's Brightness Falls chronicled the relationship of glamorous New York City couple Russell and Corrine Calloway against the backdrop of 1987's stock market crash. A 2006 sequel The Good Life explored the dynamics of the couple in a post 9/11 New York, and now, with Bright, Precious Days,
McInerney revisits literary editor Russell and Corrine, now managing a charity, as they grapple with middle-age malaise in 2008 as Obama and Clinton are neck and neck for the Democratic nomination.

McInerney strives to engage with historical events in his city in a meaningful way.

"After September 11, I was trying to decide how to react to the event and write about it. And it occurred to me that in Russell and Corrine I already had the characters, so I decided to write about it all through their eyes. I consciously try to record the events and occurrences of history.

"I think that is part of my mission. These characters aren't ordinary New Yorkers. But then, New Yorkers aren't ordinary characters. Almost anybody who lives in Manhattan is a bit more out of the ordinary then other Americans."

There are other challenges Russell and Corrine face - reaching middle age, personal financial crisis, existential angst and, as Corrine re-connects with a former lover, a marital crisis. Whereas both are guilty of past indiscretions, they still outwardly appear as the gleaming example of a loving couple whose lives boast a pristine and glossy exterior.

Looking at them, their friends believe in the idea of the strong and unshakable marriage. Chip away at that veneer though, and all is not as idyllic at it may appear. McInerney says that although the book is a portrait of a marriage, it is also a portrait of the city, shown by how his characters adapt to events.

"There's always a crisis; in this case, an affair. I think there's no such thing as a perfect marriage and if there was, it certainly wouldn't be interesting to read about.

"I didn't set out to write a book where Corrine has an affair. It wasn't good for their marriage but it was good for my story. I think marriage is a struggle - particularly if you're struggling with other things in your life."

Bright Lights, Big City, Brightness Falls, Bright, Precious Days, so what is McInerney's attraction to all things bright?

"Maybe it has something to do with being attracted to lights? It's a great word, you know. It has the literal meaning of the intensity of light but it's also figurative. At this point, it's sort of a tradition," he says, laughing.

Whereas Bright Lights, Big City took six weeks to write, Bright, Precious Days took three years. McInerney says his first book spilled forth as a youthful effusion.

"The single voice, single point of view carried me through with Bright Lights. Bright, Precious Days was a much more complicated book with many different characters and different points of view," he explains.

"For this book I did about four or five drafts. And I'm glad because if I'd stopped on just three or four, I don't think it would have been as fully realised. It's not necessarily a voice-driven novel but it's polished and intricately constructed."

McInerney has said that if he wasn't a writer, he might have been an editor. I ask him how much of himself is projected in his character Russell, and he admits they share some characteristics.

"But he's more cautious and conservative than I am and that's indicative of the editorial personality. Russell didn't have the talent to stake his uncertain future on being a novelist. I went the other way."

An established wine commentator, McInerney fizzes with enthusiasm when I mention his wine writing. His three books on the subject, A Hedonist in the Cellar, The Juice and Bacchus and Me brim with an ebullient panache whether he's writing about a special wine that tastes like everything you'd find on the top of Carmen Miranda's hat or a wine you can just pick up from the supermarket.

"I love New Zealand wine," he says. "All the world knows about Marlborough sauvignon blanc, but I'm learning about pinot gris. I also found a great pinot - Kusuda Pinot Noir. There's a great restaurant in New York in my neighbourhood called the Musket Room, which showcases food and wine from New Zealand."

A devoted New Yorker, McInerney describes the current United States election as "strange and depressing" and is unimpressed by Donald Trump.

"Most New Yorkers won't vote for Trump. We know him here and we don't like him. Most people know he's a fraud and dishonest.

"I don't think he'll get in. Right now, it doesn't seem likely," he says.

"But stranger things have happened!"

Bright, Precious Days
by Jay McInerney
(Bloomsbury, $33)

- NZ Herald

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