Bright Lights, Big City is, for me, both brutally timely and eerily nostalgic. Nostalgic partly because of it’s old school Vintage cover art, it’s beat up laminated library binding and the check out slip dating from March of 1989, but also because of it’s angsty-cum-tragic tone, the narrator’s early youthful bitterness. It is, for me, all high school. Holding it in my hands, that particular peeling library binding feel, those particular manila colored pages–watermarked, of course–reminds me of being 14, sitting on the hallway carpet in front of the wall heater, reading in the hours between school and dinner, dishes and bed. Timely, because, well–we all know what Bright Lights, Big City is about, right? Failure on all fronts: professional, romantic, artistic, financial.
The novel opens at a Manhattan night club around 2:00 am, where the narrator and his friend, the unstoppable hedonist Tad Allagash, are imbibing and attempting to either score some coke or separate one of the weaker women from the herd. Or both. We will come back to this scene a few different times.
Our hero is in the midst of a brief spiraling downfall punctuated by parties, bars, and mountains of Peruvian flake. On the verge of loosing his job as an entry-level fact checker at a prestigious magazine. In the aftermath of his wife’s desertion. In the realization that, at 24 he has failed to achieve the early promise he felt on his arrival in the city at 22.
From the description so far, this novel may seem to exhibit all the markings of a Bret Easton Ellis nihilism fest, but I don’t mean to give that impression. McInerney’s style and voice is anything but. His work is full of wit and humor. Dry for the most part, but at times almost slapstick, he offers a gently mocking portrait of fading glory of the New York literati, the 1980s nightlife, and a few boyish pranks. It also contains moments of startling honesty and clarity, in which a character grounded in escapism suddenly cuts through the bullshit and delivers an insight for which he seems thoroughly unprepared.
My only real gripe with this book (other than the uncomfortable feeling of resonance) is the ending, which, without offering too big a spoiler, adheres too closely to trends in literary fiction at the time and concludes with an abrupt hopeful up-note which, this reader felt, was not quite justified.