Jay McInerney, of course, has been chronicling New York life for two decades. His debut, Bright Lights Big City (1984), was a seminal study of Gotham’s intoxicating spell on a young new arrival, a manic second-person look at those glitzy, moneyed days of conspicuous consumption, stretch limos, and cocaine galore. Story of My Life (1989) was more of the same. Model Behavior (1998) ran amok in Giuliani-era Manhattan, skewering media swells, fashionistas, celebrity obsessives, and haughty litterateurs.
In a very real way, the city itself — fast, rich, toweringly arrogant but also vulnerable — is McInerney’s greatest character. How could he notprocess such an epochal chapter in its history? “I sort of felt, as someone who writes in New York, I had to engage it somehow,” he says. “I’ve been writing about my times in the city for 20 years. It was something I had to, in some way, register.”
William Faulkner was synonymous with Mississippi. For James Joyce, even as a self-made exile, Dublin was the world. And for McInerney — while hardly canonical — New York City is all. (Okay, the Hamptons too.) And just as Joyce boasted that were Dublin ever destroyed it could be rebuilt entirely from the pages of Ulysses, so does McInerney feel that “my job is to chronicle the contemporary city. You could draw a fairly comprehensive map of New York from my books.”
Even with his Boston roots (his grandparents were from Southie, his father from Wellesley, his mother from Newton), McInerney is a New Yorker first and foremost. “Most writers have their turf, the landscapes to which their imaginations respond,” he says. “New York is the ultimate urban environment. It’s still exciting to me. It’s still an amazing place, as much as it’s changed in the last 20 years.”
If you told anyone five years ago that Jay McInerney would write one of the most sensitive and restrained treatments of one of the most traumatic events in American history, you probably would’ve been met with blank stares. Jay McInerney? Brash, louche, arrogant, decadent Jay McInerney? Jay McInerney the Page Six playboy? Jay McInerney the oenophile, the epicure, the bon vivant? The Jay McInerney who for years was seen as all but synonymous with the line-snorting protagonist of his debut novel? The Jay McInerney who was still partying hard well into his 40s? The Jay McInerney the Village Voice calls a “rail-blowing, model-dating, sommelier-in-a-club-chair frat boy”? This was who would document the Manhattan’s psychic scars and spiritual rebirth after its collective blunt-force trauma?
Why not? Like all New Yorkers, Jay McInerney was affected deeply by 9/11. It changed him too. “It’s always dangerous to generalize about this heterogeneous and contentious mass of humanity,” he wrote in the Guardian four days after the attacks, “but I think it’s safe to say that New Yorkers have finally come up against a phenomenon larger than their collective capacity for jaded equanimity.”
Once he’d steeled himself to dealing with the enormity of the attacks, McInerney knew the book would require a new approach. It was “difficult to imagine using some of my usual tricks — light social satire, dazzling wordplay as ends in themselves,” he explained to a packed room at the Brookline Booksmith on February 6. No, this task would require a “dialing back of some of my usual pyrotechnics.” Suddenly, the guy known for his writerly brio, his razor-keen turns of phrase, found himself adhering to the dictum of his old teacher, Raymond Carver: “No tricks.”