At the Penguin Bookshop in London’s Covent Garden, Jay McInerney is amiably autographing copies of his new novel. Suddenly, a young woman approaches the curly-haired American author and says in a shrill, tremulous voice: “I think your book is full of crap!” She then identifies herself as Heather Moran, a Californian who does some acting and modeling, and so, she explains, can relate to McInerney’s superhip characters. “If she’s a model, I’m a priest,” laughs McInerney, who, judging by today’s suit, is called more to the cloth with an Armani label. But his mood brightens when a pretty blond sidles up with her cocker spaniel, Daisy. “I just love his books. I’m a total fan of his,” gushes Emma Ridley, a fixture on the London club scene who earned the sobriquet “Wild Child” at 15 by eloping to Las Vegas with a man twice her age.
It turns out that neither of these young women has actually read McInerney’s new book. It is, as the author himself might say, the Story of My Life, which also happens to be the title of his latest oeuvre. In London to promote the British edition (the book will be on sale in the U.S. this week), McInerney is quickly discovering that even on the other side of the Atlantic many people have already made up their minds about him and his work. At age 33, the young writer is a prisoner of the image created by his smash first novel, Bright Lights, Big City. Published in 1984 and made into a movie that was released this year, starring Michael J. Fox, that book established him as the ultimate chronicler of Manhattan’s cocaine-dusted demimonde. Now, lumped into a literary Brat Pack with such other arbiters of hip as Tama Janowitz and Bret Easton Ellis, McInerney is so closely associated with a particular world of brand-name thrills and drop-dead values that he has become less a writer than a state of mind. Indeed, John Walsh, literary editor of the Evening Standard, confesses to McInerney as they sit down for an interview at Brown’s Hotel, that he had to battle the fashion editor for the assignment.
If McInerney chafes at his trendy typecasting, the new book won’t do much to dispel it. Having abandoned the slick New York club scene for Japan in his unsuccessful second novel, Ransom, he has gone back to the Bright Lights well for Story, though he writes this time in the voice of a woman—the morally adrift Alison Poole. Twenty, going on 21, Alison has slept with a few dozen guys and thrives on coke and clubs. Writing in her voice was a big “stretch” of his narrative skills, McInerney has said. But as he explains over and over to reporters on this London publicity blitz, he actually had to reach no further than the other end of a sofa at Nell’s—Manhattan’s hot club last year—to find his updated Holly Golightly. “I was asked to sit down by a friend, and when he took off, I was left listening to the conversation of his sister and some of her friends,” McInerney says. “The language they were talking amazed me…the way they talked about men and sex…. I tried to reproduce it in prose.”
How do such smart-mouth hedonists play in Piccadilly? When McInerney does a half-hour radio call-in show, only one person rings up. The caller says he identifies with the characters in Bright Lights. “I felt like saying, ‘I feel sorry for you,’ ” McInerney says later. His own relationship to his protagonists, he insists, has always been more sociological than autobiographical. “I feel that Alison and her friends are, in their way, as interesting as John Cheever’s suburban couples and Raymond Carver’s lumberjacks. I don’t advocate what Alison and her friends do, but it is something that I see.”
In fact, it is something McInerney sees often and at very short range. Though he diligently works six to eight hours a day when at home in his Greenwich Village brownstone, McInerney also gets in his share of bright lights, late nights and gossip column mentions. His first marriage, to a model, ended in 1981, and he is now separated from his second wife, Merry Redmond, who’s studying for a doctorate in philosophy. Recently, McInerney has been seen cuddling at clubs with model Marla Hanson, who made headlines in 1986 as the victim of a brutal slashing. Midway through the London jaunt, a New York tabloid announces that Merry is filing for divorce, which McInerney says is news to him. “I called my editor in New York and said, ‘Find out what this is all about.’ ”
At a special London screening of Bright Lights, McInerney is introduced by his friend Julian Barnes, the British novelist. You can ask the author anything you want, Barnes warns the audience, as long as you don’t compare him to Tama or Bret. Jay, it seems, is determined to break out of the conspicuously consuming yuppie mold. Yet he also finds time in his hectic London schedule to stop by Tommy Nutter—Eric Clapton’s tailor—for a few designer suits. And on the way back to Julian’s home, he picks up a pricey Bordeaux.
Most likely, the insouciant Alison Poole, who lives on air and credit cards, would recognize the vintage. She is, says her bond-trader boyfriend, the perfect “postmodern girl.” So is her creator the ultimate postmodern boy? Consider the scene at McInerney’s big London book party, held at Groucho’s, the in nightclub. Scattered around the room are bowls of white powder. Guests dip in a finger, take a sniff, and ponder: Is it sugar, baking soda? And is that the guest of honor or a paparazzo? Like a latter-day Warhol, McInerney is floating around the room, taking photographs, on assignment for a local magazine called Blitz to cover his own bash.
Meanwhile the British reviewers have weighed in with opinions as diverse as those at the bookstore signing. The magazine Time Out compares Story of My Life to Thackeray. The satirical Private Eye finds less than zero to get excited about and brands McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis the “Tweedledum and Tweedledee” of mindless youthful ennui.
So far, the reviews at home are similarly divided. But McInerney’s image being what it is, nothing is likely to deflate his imminent 10-city U.S. book tour. There will also be a huge New York party, of course, at M.K., the Nell’s of the moment. It should be swell. Maria is invited, and Bret and Tama and…
—By Andrea Chambers, with Jonathan Cooper in London