Bright Lights Big City may have started out as Jay McInerney’s wee-hours musings on his decadent life in Manhattan but it’s become arguably the greatest modern-day coke novel—and for good reason. It’s hilarious, acerbic and offers spot-on characterizations of 80’s Manhattan (from coma babies in the New York Post to party girls turning into lesbian lovers when the hours get late and one is indulging in Bolivian Marching Powder at Odeon).
This tale told by a never-named second person narrator who checks facts (badly) at a magazine that sounds a hell of a lot like The New Yorker first appeared as a story called “It’s Six A.M. Do You Know Where You Are” in the Paris Review in 1982. McInerney turned it into a novella during the summer of 1983 and Bright Lights was a full-blown sensation by the time it was released in 1984 (he’d already been taking meetings about the screen rights before the book came out).
The praise wasn’t universal (Michiko Kakutani stated both that “the reader quickly becomes irritated with Mr. McInerney’s attempt to tell the entire story in second person” and that the book’s “heavily autobiographical flavor and its refusal to plumb the shiny surfaces of its characters’ lives add up to a tale that’s peculiarly slight”) but that hardly seemed to matter. Bright Lights made McInerney into an overnight sensation in a way that only women who self-publish Twilight fan fiction about S&M relationships get nowadays. He also delivered an all-too-accurate and entirely rare tale about how the glitterati do drugs. This was 1984, after all—just before the crack epidemic took hold, back when news stories about drugs were alarmist and not trend pieces—so a writer busting out with a tale of drug use among the fabulosity was altogether original.
While McInerney may describe the reviews the book received as “hardly rapturous,” some of them actually very much were. “Each generation needs its Manhattan novel, and many ache to write it. But it was McInerney who succeeded,” raved a non-Michiko reviewer at the Times while Vanity Fair announced that the book “defined, and even determined, the mood of this whole town.” Although the 1988 Michael J. Fox Bright Lights movie was a disappointment, somehow lacking all the energy and cleverness of the McInerney tome, apparently a new version may one day hit the screen.
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Categories: Culture & Politics