Jay McInerney: ‘You can only blow up your life so many times before it becomes ridiculous’

With Bright Lights, Big City, the novelist established himself as the chronicler of New Yorks hedonistic 80s elite. Thirty years and four marriages later, he is still fascinated by wealth and Donald Trump though his friendship with Bret Easton Ellis is flagging …

It is more than 30 years since Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerneys first and most famous novel was published, and everything and nothing has changed. The 61-year-old still lives in Manhattan, in apenthouse a few blocks from one of his first addresses in New York. (In the early 1980s, the rent on his Bowery apartment was $375 a month. A night at the Bowery Hotel, where McInerney stayed last week while his air conditioning was being fixed, is $425). He doesnt snort cocaine in club bathrooms any more, but when hes in the city, he still goes out every night. And he retains a charm perennially described as boyish but that strikes me, today, as something more tentative, a state ofmild bafflement that seems poised between hopefulness and the ever-present threat of disappointment.

The most unwavering aspect of McInerneys life, at least as it pertains to his public image as a novelist, is his identification with the upper echelons of New York society, an affiliation that has earned him a reputation over the years as a social butterfly. McInerney is the first to say of his own experience: It became alittle unrepresentative. Successful novelist is not an everyman category, and to add, somewhat ruefully, that unlike the protagonist of his latest novel, Bright, Precious Days, who struggles to raise kids in New York on a publishing salary, when McInerneys own children were born, I was actually pretty flush.

The novelists divorce from Helen Bransford, his third wife and his childrens mother, wiped him out financially, but his fourth wife, Anne Hearst, is an heiress and a certified member of the Upper East Side social crowd, the ins and outs of which continue to preoccupy his work. In light of all this, I had expected to find someone a little mannered, a touch absurd in the Tom Wolfe style. Instead, this morning, McInerney is guileless to a degree that makes me feel vaguely anxious for him.

Bright, Precious Days is the third novel in a series, after Brightness Falls and The Good Life, and chronicles the lives of Russell and Corrine Calloway, who came to New York in the 1980s chasing a literary dream and woke to find themselves, at 50, in a small apartment with two children, one bathroom and no money for summer plans. McInerney calls this the life not lived; had he not become a successful writer, he would in all likelihood have become an editor like Russell Calloway, one of the stretched middle classes in a city increasingly hostile to anyone not on or married to a banking salary. Theyre lucky and privileged in some ways, hesays. But in other ways most 50-year-old parents would like to have some space and multiple bathrooms. These are the kind of sacrifices people make to stay in Manhattan. Is the price of being a New Yorker worth it?

This question and the assumptions underpinning it are, as with the focus of so much of McInerneys work, vulnerable to a charge of so what?. The Calloways, who live above their means and knock around town with hedge fund managers and billionaires, might move out of the city to a perfectly good life elsewhere. That they cant bring themselves to go not even to the suburbs, but merely uptown to Harlem is not a drama with wide-ranging appeal. Meanwhile, their creators view from the penthouse can come across, in these times, as a little unseemly. Beyond the exigencies of the story, the rich matter, says McInerney, because, I think as a writer its certainly interesting to observe them. And I think not enough people do. These people have a huge influence on the way that we all live. And I do think these [hedge fund] guys are usually either figures of satire or weird wish fulfilment girly romance-novel fantasy. But more often theyre objects of derision.

There is an assumption of philistinism, I say.

Exactly. And sometimes its justified. I had dinner with a friend of mine last night whos a Wall Street guy, and hes on the board of the Whitney Museum, hes the major patron of the Roundabout Theatre. Hes involved in so many cultural and charitable activities I admire that. I know him because hes a wine collector. I make fun of wine collectors; some of them are philistines. But I dont know. I try to keep an open mind.

McInerney is, famously, a wine collector himself and his enthusiasm for his billionaire chums on the scene is so artless, it feels a little grudging to hold it against him. Nonetheless, a few months ago, his old friend Bret Easton Ellis took McInerney to task, telling the Sunday Times that their friendship had cooled because Easton Ellis wasnt rich enough for McInerney.

McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis on the town together in 1990. Photograph: Catherine McGann/Getty Images

Huh! says McInerney. I didnt see that! He looks taken aback. Actually, Isay, Easton Elliss first charge was that their friendship had cooled because McInerney didnt like how his friend had portrayed him in his novel, Lunar Park. I actually thought it was very fun, says McInerney and laughs, mirthlessly. He insists on saying that. I thought it was very amusing. Bret never says … you can never take anything he says straight. Hes always gone for effect. Up until a couple of years ago, Isaw him pretty regularly. I hope to seehim next month when I go to LA on book tour. We were very, very close. I think when Bret decided to leave New York he chose to reject a lot of what he left behind. He had a very hard time here in the end and I think that, basically, hes very down on New York for very complicated reasons some personal, some symbolic and Ithink Irepresent New York and his old life, including some very difficult aspects.

In their heyday, the two men, along with the novelist Tama Janowitz, formed a literary rat pack and were frequently out on the town until dawn. McInerney gives a big sigh. Personally, Im a little sad about his wholesale rejection of the city. Hes been saying for the last 10 years that New Yorks over, New Yorks over. Well, just because you chose to leave, doesnt mean everything ended.

One thing that strikes me about McInerneys image in that era is that he was only a bad boy in comparison to some perversely old-fashioned idea of the novelist. Unlike Edward St Aubyn, say, McInerney never seemed in any real danger of falling down a drugs hole never to return.

No, no, I wasnt that guy, he laughs. I was the guy who, after staying up till dawn, would feel horribly hungover and remorseful for the next few days, before I went out and did it again. What is that book of [St Aubyns], set in New York? Its just gruelling. And wonderful.

He means Bad News, the second in St Aubyns series of five autobiographical novels that describes how he nearly died from a heroin overdose while in New York in the 80s. It makes me think, Hey, Im not so bad! He was so far out there. Also, I had to write.

You werent privately funded, I say.

I wasnt. I graduated from college and my parents said goodbye and good luck. They paid my tuition, and that was it. So I was scrambling around. When I first came to New York, I was writing freelance book reviews, doing freelance copy editing. Until I published Bright Lights, I was very strapped. Which Im, frankly, grateful for. Ive seen far too many trust fund kids fail to launch in any direction except down.

McInerney with his fourth wife, Anne Hearst, in 2005. Photograph: Startraks Photo/Rex/Shutterstock

McInerney grew up all over the US as his father, a sales and marketing executive, frequently changed jobs, eventually settling in Pittsfield, Massachusetts for his high-school years and graduating from Williams College in 1976. He went on to attain a masters degree, studying writing under Raymond Carver, at Syracuse University, and then moved to New York, where he set about living the rackety life that would provide the material for his first novel.

Bright Lights sold millions of copies when it came out in the mid-80s and established McInerney as an arresting new talent and, perhaps,, thanks to the vigour and innovation of that book, with its famous second-person narrative you are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning as a more literary novelist than he would turn out to be. In Bright, Precious Days, there are many good, sharp scenes that nail the social swirl and hypocrisy of wealthy New York, but there isnt much in the way of real psychological acuity, and many of the characters struggle to rise above the level of stereotype. McInerney has, it seems to me, suffered over the years bytrying to flog himself into a posher novelist than he naturally is.

Either way, he seems touchingly pleased with the good reviews the novel has earned in the US. For years, I felt like I had been paying for the success of Bright Lights, Big City; my perceived manner of life, whether its the alleged partying or being a semi-public figure, or being comfortably off. I feel like, with this book, it was finally judged on its merits. There are a lot of people out there who resented me. Ihope thats over.

Most novelists who read their own reviews can probably recite by rote the best and worst lines, but few would expose themselves to potential ridicule by doing so in public. McInerney is so game and, in this regard, so likable that he plunges in regardless, quoting word for word not one, but two Janet Maslin reviews in the New York Times, one of which is seven years old. Her review of his latest novel was a little cryptic, he says. But then when she said, Please, Mr McInerney, write another, I thought, I guess she likes it. Because her review of my short stories His idea of etiquette is holding a girls hair while she snorts a line of cocaine was favourable but very prickly.

McInerney is surely right when he says his early fame and wealth tipped opinion against him. Twenty years ago, when his twins were born, he was living in very un-writerly style in a four-bedroom co-op in the Carlyle hotel. (It was originally a two-bedroom, but, when the twins arrived, he bought the co-op downstairs from his friend Stephen Fry, and knocked through). And look I wish I had been more sensible. I wish I had invested more wisely. I wish I had bought the painting that Jean-Michel Basquiat offerred me at three in the morning, for $700. It would be worth like $30m today. I didnt invest wisely, I didnt conserve the money. I got divorced three times, which squandered money. On the other hand, I havent been a trainwreck, either. Ive been stumbling along fairly successfully.

His worst financial period was in 2000, when McInerney was overdue by a year in delivering The Good Life and living alone in a one-bedroom apartment. I was really up against the wall. I was getting divorced and trying to take care of the kids, and I had to really produce to get my way out of this. I was in debt. It was boom and bust. The Carlyle apartment mostly went to my ex-wife and kids which is as it should be. I dont regret any of that.

McInerney in 2006: he likes his fine wine. Photograph: David Howells/Rex/Shutterstock

He and his ex-wife remained on good terms, which is characteristic of McInerney. Of the various exes, he says, including the ones that I didnt marry, Im close to all but one or two. One knows men like this and they are always on good terms with their exes, always given the benefit of the doubt by their women on the basis of likability, affability and a mild but irresistible propensity to appear slightly lost. To marry four times is, of course, not a sign of cynicism, but its opposite. I am an optimistic person. I like to think Im romantic. McInerney shrugs and looks pained. I also think Ive settled down. You can only blow up your life so many times before it becomes a little ridiculous.

In other words, he grew up and is now something of an elder statesman a scary thought. Well, Ive been waiting! The trilogy is an attempt by McInerney to take a mature, panoramic view of New York and some aspects of that aremore successful than others. The publishing world is, of course, very well rendered, but Corrine Calloway runs a food bank in the Bronx and there is some excruciating dialect Dont you be talking bout my kids. Aint none ayo fuckin bidness from the characters there, to whom Corrine ministers before popping off to lunch at the Four Seasons with her billionaire lover. Imention Jonathan Franzens spat overrace the novelists confession, in an interview in Slate, that he doesnt write books about race because, I dont have very many blackfriends.

Did he? I missed that one. Oh lord. Well. On the one hand I suppose I understand that response. On the other hand, Ithink if youre someone like Jonathan Franzen, who attempts to write on the grand scale about the large issues of the republic, and of existence, I can understand why somebody noticed this omission. Its true. Now that I think about it, there arent any black characters in his books. Well, far be it from me to criticise Franzen. Hes an important novelist. But yeah, suddenly it does seem slightly surprising. McInerney laughs good-naturedly. I hadnt thought of his work in that way, but looking back, yup: white, white, white.

The current political landscape is one that, along with everyone else in the US, McInerney can only look on at in wonder. In the 2008 election, he was an early Obama supporter and says of his tenure: I dont think hes done a terrible job, given what hes faced. Im not sure who couldve dealt with that obstructionist Republican congress; a Lyndon Johnson, or someone with slicker legislative skills couldve brought them around a little, maybe, although obstructionism is the religion of these rightwing republicans.

Incredibly, Rudy Giuliani, currently stumping for Trump, officiated at McInerneys fourth wedding. They havent met this election season but generally, When I see him,I just avoid the subject of politics altogether, because I know were not going to agree on anything.

As for Trump: Hes this cartoon of aNew York tycoon, and barely a tycoon at that. I have friends in the real estate business and they say, number one, he has hugely overinflated his wealth, and number two, hes impossible to do business with; hes not trustworthy, he sues everybody. Hes not well regarded in that community.

Its the community McInerney holdsdear. And seriously, he was not a presence on the Upper East Side social world. Hes not charitable, or philanthropic and hes not social. One of the reasons many of us think he wont release his tax returns is that hes never given anything to charity in his life. As a New Yorker, I regret that hes associated with the city I love.

Whenever McInerney starts a new novel, he has to clear out of the city to Vermont, or Rhode Island, until he has the thing under way. But he always comes back. And when hes in New York, he really does go out every night. Every night, he says. Otherwise, I dont know; thats the point of New York?

It is this, 30 years down the line, that distinguishes McInerney from so many other burnt-out veterans of his city and his trade the utter lack of a jaded world view. This is a nice apartment, he says, enthusiasm rising. But most of what Im paying for is out there.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/nov/01/jay-mcinerney-regret-trump-associated-city-i-love-new-york-bright-lights

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