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Jay McInerney enters the literary fast lane. Now he can pay off his Visa bill, but success `hasn't changed my values'

By Hilary DeVriesStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 29, 1985


When I got out of school, I couldn't think of anything I really wanted to do. There were options, but there weren't any reasons. -- Jay McInerney in ``Ransom'' He handles the microphone like a pro.

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Or at least as well as a nightclub entertainer who has the gestures down pat: Shoot the eyebrows, cock the shoulder, banter with the literary-minded audience at the Boston Public Library.

``Yeah,'' this guy likes his success. And yeah, the movie version of his best-selling first novel, ``Bright Lights Big City,'' will probably ``freak out'' its author when it's released sometime next year, exactly 10 years after Jay McInerney graduated from college despairing of being a ``white middle-class [writer] in the early 1970s.'' It was, he says, ``like the most boring thing.''

But success has come fast for this author of 1984's trendiest novel, that funny, if graphic, depiction of life in New York City's fast lane. Some hot reviews (George Plimpton called McInerney ``a remarkable discovery'') and a slot on the best-seller list generated the kind of overnight fame that characterizes the literary brat pack -- that covey of under-30 novelists, including Lorrie Moore and Bret Easton Ellis, among others. Their sheer youth has made them something of a publishing trend.

``I was a 28-year-old failure and then a 29-year-old success,'' says McInerney in an insouciant, laugh-punctuated way that is underscored by his expensive blazer and wrinkled chinos. Now making the promotional rounds after publication of his second novel, ``Ransom,'' McInerney grapples with his role as a young, financially successful writer.

``The fact that I can finally pay off my Visa bill doesn't make me realign my values. All that really matters is the writing. On the other hand, having 200,000 readers is much better than having three.'' McInerney says all this with characteristic bravado mixed in with some ``Who me?'' humility. In a Monitor interview, he describes the success of his first novel as ``ironic,'' since it was ``about a guy coming to terms with failure.'' In the next breath he laments the mixed reviews for ``Ransom.'' `` I just knew it wouldn't get a fair reading,'' he sighs.

About his being an overnight success, he retorts, ``Yeah, well I've tried to [write] for eight to nine years. So I'm surprised to hear this called an overnight success when I've written thousands of [unpublished] pages.''

In addition to those years spent at the typewriter, McInerney deliberately attempted to etch some culture, some experience, onto his apparently patina-less, college-boy surface. Upon graduation he plunged into a ``Jack Kerouac number,'' which included stints on a mink ranch, a suburban New Jersey newspaper, a Japanese advertising agency, The New Yorker magazine, and Random House. Like any aspiring writer, he then checked himself into a graduate school and wrote about the experience. But like few aspiri ng writers, he actually sold his work to his former employer and current publisher. When asked, as he repeatedly is, about the autobiographical nature of his books, he shrugs.

``Some people think [``Bright Lights''] was about The New Yorker, yuck, yuck. Other people think it's about the fashion world or the club scene or drugs. It's all those things and more. I freely borrowed from my own life as I needed it. But the facts of my life are completely irrelevant with regard to writing fiction, except insofar as they make compelling reading.''