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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.''

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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.''

The protagonist in ``Bright Lights'' is a young magazine editor who loses his job, his wife, and his self-respect in a week of picaresque adventures in Manhattan's Yuppie subculture. McInerney intended to write a satire of the ``mindless fashion following of the '80s,'' a mentality he says ``is not just clothes, but even nutrition, now. Somebody will tell you, `You can't eat sushi this week. That was last week. Forget it. Tex-Mex.' ''

Setting his second novel in Kyoto, Japan, a spiritual and thematic remove from the glitzy New York of ``Bright Lights,'' McInerney gives his two protagonists a shared sense of alienation. Christopher Ransom is literally in exile in Japan, where he seeks meaning to his life through the rigors of karate. ``Ransom admires a lot about Japanese culture and would like to be a part of it,'' says McInerney, ``but he's smart enough to know that the home he couldn't find [in the United States] he also can't find in Japan.''

McInerney wanted to write this book ``not so much about Japan but about a group of expatriates in this dead zone between the '60s and the '80s. Today, nobody is self-conscious about being totally materialistic, and in the '60s all culture was political. But in the '70s there was no clearly defined cultural, political or moral consensus.''

This theme of misplaced community predominates in both his novels. McInerney says it typifies his own generation. ``There's a nostalgia, but also a great skepticism, among well-to-do upper-middle class Easterners for these values. The cynicism of our age comes from a sense that an awful lot of the options have been exhausted. We don't believe in anything we can't put in our wallets. I would love to find a way beyond that.'' For McInerney, the act of writing ``is this kind of exploration.''

Now at work on his third novel, after completing the screenplay of ``Bright Lights,'' McInerney is continuing this exploration. ``Even if it becomes lonelier, it becomes more important to be a writer in this electronic age.''

Then, with his mix of bravado and humility, he adds, ``I think the writer should be a witness and an observer who ideally adds an element of conscience to his time. Whether I'm good enough to be that, I don't know.'' Excerpt from `Ransom' (Random House)

Every night for a week, Ransom watched them practice. He had not noticed the fighting so much as the grace of movement. The best of the students gave the impression of quadruped balance and intimacy with the ground. They conveyed an extraordinary sense of self-possession. For months, Ransom had drifted across landscapes in a fevered daze, oblivious to almost everything but his own pain and guilt. The dojo with its strange incantations and white uniforms seemed to him a sacramental place, an inters ection of body and spirit, where power and danger and will were ritualized in such a way that a man could learn to understand them. Ransom had lost his bearings spiritually, and he wanted to reclaim himself. . . .

Yamada's waning interest in the dojo disconcerted him. For two years Ransom had been putting nearly all of his energy and time into karate, hoping eventually to be as good as Yamada, who was three or four years older and had been at it for half his life. Ransom believed that he would become a different person, better somehow, if he kept training. Without actually cataloging imagined benefits, he felt that the discipline would tone all of his being. It was a way of knowing himself. He wished to be morall y taut and resolute, and at the same time more at ease with his fellow creatures, to achieve a self-mastery that would reduce the complexity of transacting with others. -- Jay McInerney

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