Another Straight White Guy Writer-type in New York featuring Cocaine, or Bright Lights, Big City

Jay McInerney’s 1984 novel Bright Lights, Big City has a lot stacked against it. It’s not only a very “New York” story, it’s about a sensitive and artistic yet somehow tragically misunderstood straight white male in the eighties, who behaves badly. It’s a novel about a writer written entirely in the second person present tense. Massive and frenetically flapping red flags abound. These disclaimers aside, Bright Lights is a damn good book.

The humor in this book is it’s single strongest redeeming feature. It’s the kind of humor that produces involuntary and audible laughter, and I had to stop reading in certain situations on account of my inability to contain laughter in a place whose social norms preclude that sort of thing. It’s dark and hyper-critical, but the criticism inherent in the humor is nonselective, meaning that our protagonist is catching more of it than anyone else. This is certainly earned criticism, and it’s the other major redeeming factor -this guy would be completely insufferable, completely miserable to be around if he weren’t so hard on himself for all of his own bullshit. Not to say that he isn’t dishonest and self-deceptive, even patently unlikable at times, but one even feels empathy and connection to a character who, handled less skillfully, would be nothing but an exercises in patience.

The rather novel point of view would seem on the face of it to be a bit of a gimmick, but it all flows together so well that one doesn’t really notice it beyond itself or think of it as an externally forced device. Again, had the writing been handled with any less care, this would be a major irritant, but everything feels so smooth that I can’t imagine this book written any other way. It’s a testament to McInerney’s chops that he is able to pull together so many concerning and often-done-badly elements and produce something that’s not just aesthetically well-done, but compelling in narrative, empathetic, and fun to read.

Recommendation: Give it a go. You’ll find out by the end of the first chapter if this book isn’t for you.


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