Jay McInerney: 25 Years After 'Bright Lights, Big City'

When Jay McInerney was publishing his first book, Bright Lights, Big City, in 1984, his publisher told him that people didn't care about New York, and that none of the great American novels had been set in the city. (After all, as McInerney reminds me, The Great Gatsby was actually set on Long Island.) "But what could I have done?" he asks, slurping French onion soup at New York's Odeon restaurant, which appears (along with the Twin Towers) on the now-iconic cover of his novel. "I'd written a book. I was fascinated with New York, and somehow, I was breaking new ground."

It's a bizarre idea: a book about being young and strung out in Manhattan was, somehow, a breath of fresh air: Bright Lights not only cemented McInerney, now 54, as a superstar among debut novelists, but defined the culture of '80s New York in all its gritty yet glamorous glory. Cocaine was involved, yes, but mostly as a metaphor for excess—a vice that the book exposes as isolating and depressing, and the city (and country) has learned to hate since Wall Street crashed, Bernie Madoff was carted off to jail, and those fabulous women who shop all day started asking for nondescript brown-paper bags.

But while we're all busy bemoaning conspicuous consumption, Bright Lights, Big City stands out as a cautionary tale worth revisiting. Perhaps that explains its resurgence: for the first time, it's being released with a new cover. And next year the book will be brought back to film, with TV wonderboy Josh Schwartz (the guy behind Gossip Girl and The O.C.) taking the helm. (The grim 1988 version starred Michael J. Fox.) But is this new blast of buzz good for McInerney? For the past 25 years, he's vacillated between embracing and shunning the party-boy persona that his first novel helped spur. These days, the man (who looks like a handsome Rod Blagojevich, sans helmet hair) hides out in the Hamptons while his apartment's being renovated. But lately, he's been returning to the city, to—OMG—hang out with the cast of Gossip Girl and stay at the trendy Standard Hotel. To many, it may sound like the McInerney we know and love (or loathe?) is back. But, as he tells NEWSWEEK, he's returned to a whole new city, and it's one he can't quite explain yet. Excerpts:

The new cover still shows the Odeon, but it's hardly recognizable behind the huge white text. How do you feel about the change?
I approved it with some reluctance. I was sad to lose the World Trade towers. There was some talk after September 11 about changing the cover, and I said absolutely not because it was important to keep the towers. Anyway, there's probably going to be a movie tie-in version next year.

Last I read, the plan was to update the story for the new film.
Josh Schwartz, the director, said to me, "Imagine this is 2007, right before the economic meltdown, and Tad Allagash works for Lehman Brothers." I'm not taking a stand on this: we did it once in the '80s and it wasn't really successful.

Were you happy with it?
Nah, I don't think anybody was. But I'm not sorry that people still think of Bright Lights, Big City as a novel; The Graduate was a pretty terrific novel when it was published and nobody even knows it's a book now.

In any case, your novel's certainly back in the bright lights. How do you see it connecting with the modern New York?
New York is still the place where ambitious young people come to fulfill their dreams ... even if it's harder. As far as I can I tell, there's still as much cocaine around, or probably more. In 1984, cocaine was not democratized; it was an elitist downtown thing. Now it's all suburbanized: everybody has access to coke. That's why we don't talk about it anymore. It's been drained of cultural significance.

When you wrote the book, your publisher told you no one cared for New York novels. Does the city still matter?
These days, I'd probably be living in Brooklyn—not Manhattan—but there really isn't any place that's displaced New York as a cultural center: early '90s Seattle made its bid. South Beach keeps threatening to matter, except it's so culturally vapid that nobody can live there for too long. If I was graduating from college, I would still come here. What's more difficult now is being a novelist delivering news about culture, because culture moves so fast now. I was writing Bright Lights in 1981, but when it came out in 1984, it was as if I suddenly invented cocaine.

So could someone still write a novel that defines culture?
Now it's not credible that someone could work at a three-year lag time and publish a novel that seems to deliver cultural news. But I'm always thinking, today or tomorrow, somebody will send me a great galley. Publishers send me a lot of first novels because my first novel was the defining novel of my career, and I guess a lot of people want my benediction or something.

You can never really escape Bright Lights, then.
After 25 years, what are you gonna do? As Norman Mailer once said to me, "One of the hardest things to acquire is a persona, and you've got one." But it's also one of the hardest things to get rid of. Obviously, I'm no longer a 25-year-old bon vivant, but [that] gave me what I always wanted: the opportunity to be a full-time writer. It hasn't been entirely fair to my other books, and I've had to deal with a lot of idiocy on the part of the critics and the cultural commentators.

What do you mean?
A lot of people who should've known better just imagined I was this coke-addled pop star who happened to write these books in his sleep. I spent a long time living down all the hoopla of Bright Lights, Big City, and at the resentment of people who wanted to write the New York novel themselves.

You played into all the press, though.
There was a point when I was competing against my books—and my books were losing. People were writing about me, and not my books. Mailer was always an exhibitionist, too, but it didn't always work for him either.

These days, with the Internet, being an exhibitionist seems too easy.
The culture has changed so much, but I'm not sure the publishing world has caught up with it. I certainly think that the publishing houses have to learn more about this informal network of literary blogging and get over the idea that sending an author on a book tour—to Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles—is a successful model anymore.

So will you go on a book tour for the next book?
I'm sort of hoping the whole idea will be dead by then. I went for the last one, and I said, "Are you guys kidding? Aren't we, like, done with this?"

How do you feel about the Kindle?
As an author, I have mixed feelings. I'm not sure I'm going to benefit financially from that. I get about half the royalties, but they say that will be made up for by higher volume. Why, do you use one?

I have one. But I sort of hate it.
You've basically expressed my feelings.

How connected do you feel to technology and young people these days?
I don't go out all the time anymore, but I go out with the cast of Gossip Girl sometimes. I love to see what's going on, but I would not pretend to be any kind of authority on what people in their 20s are doing in New York now.

You met the cast through your cameo on the show, right?
Yeah, Gossip Girl is a good show. It's a real New York show, like Sex and the City.

Ha, that show seems dated now. Does the city ever really change?
I dunno—9/11 seemed transformative and yet it didn't transform us as much as we thought it might. I was gonna give up writing novels for a few months. Ian McEwan said the same thing: my friends and I felt like fiction was frivolous in light of what had happened. Now I think that's an incredibly stupid thing to think. For weeks we thought nothing would ever be the same again. But in the end it transformed national politics much more than it transformed the landscape of New York.

So the financial crisis probably won't change much either, then.
Actually, I think for the first time, we're on the verge of genuine seismic changes. Part of me thinks that once the stock market recovers, everybody will go back to obsessing about their apartments. But even with Wall Street, there will be a lot more shakeout. There are things that have disappeared—Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, part of print media, which connects to advertising—that when this cycle plays out, I think people will be different.

How so?
It's a really interesting moment; I'm fascinated. I can't see what's going to happen to New York in the next year or two. The city isn't going to collapse, but the period that I lived in New York was the deification of the investment banker. I think that cultural moment is over, thank God, and we'll see what takes its place.