Bright Lights, Big City

Jay McInerney

 

The novel Bright Lights, Big City was published in New York in 1984. It was Jay McInerney's first novel. Its unexpected success triggered off a whole trend of novels written by young authors (Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero, Michael Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and others). Various labels had been attached to these novels, like, for example, "Novels of the Cocaine Culture" because of their references to the 1980s drug-culture, "Yuppie Fiction", as they reflect aspects of the 1980s yuppie culture or "MTV novels" because they predominantly consist of short chapters and are fast paced (remenescent of video clips on MTV).

In 1988 Bright Lights, Big City was made into a movie starring Michael J. Fox. Compared to the novel, the movie was only a mediocre commercial success. The novel was named after the song Bright Lights, Big City, originally sung by Jimmy Reed. A cover version by Donald Fagan is also the title song of the movie.

Listen to Jimmy Reed
"Bright Lights, Big City"

 


 

Bright Lights, Big City is set in New York City. The protagonist, a 24-year-old aspiring writer who remains nameless throughout the novel, finds himself in a crisis. He is bored with his job at a prestigious New York magazine, his wife has left him and he suffers from writer's block. To distract himself from his problems he has developed a cocaine habit and spends every night out in the bars and clubs of New York.

 

IT'S  SIX  A. M.       DO  YOU  KNOW  WHERE   YOU  ARE  ?

 

The protagonist and his yuppie friend Tad Allagash find themselves in a nightclub - either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge - in the early hours of the morning. They have travelled nocturnal New York and movement was their main mission. The protagonist muses:

. . . How did you get here? It was your friend, Tad Allagash, who powered you in here. You started out on the Upper East Side with champagne and unlimited prospects, strictly observing the Allagash rule of perpetual motion: one drink per stop. Tad's mission in life is to have more fun than anyone else in New York City, and this involves a lot of moving around, since there is always the likelihood that where you aren't is more fun than where you are.

McInerney ridicules a New York habit: Being in the right club is the purpose of going out and moving from one hot spot to the next is seen as a necessity. In the novel no one ever claims to have found the right place to be, no one ever "arrives". The protagonist fails miserably because, despite all his efforts, he never really "has fun".

McInerney complains that the novel has often been misread as a"guidebook to the world of fashion, the New York City's nightlife, the pursuit of glamor."

He says, he thought he was "...advancing a modest critique of an age in which an actor is the President, in which fashion models are asked for their opinions, in which getting into a nightclub is seen as a significant human achievement." (Interview with Sandford Pinsker)

 

  Throughout the novel we travel with the protagonist on the subway, in cabs, in buses and limosines, to and from work and nightclubs and we see the city of New York through his eyes. Names of city streets appear constantly and often it is neccesary to know about the geography of New York to understand these allusions. A remark about Tad's cousin is such an example:

 

 His [Tad's] friends are all rich and spoiled, like the cousin from Memphis you met earlier in the evening who would not accompany you below Fourteenth Street because, he said, he didn't have a lowlife visa.

 

Fourteenth street crosses Manhattan vertically from East to West (see map below) and separates the more exclusive Midtown and Uptown area from Downtown districts known as the East and the West Village. In the 1980s subcultures thrived especially in the East Village. It was a dilapitated area, in which "underground" artists worked and lived and the New York punk movement took its roots there. In this passage McInerney takes a swipe against yuppie preconceptions. Tad's cousin refuses to mingle with this crowd, he prefers to remain in his exclusive circles located "above Fourteenth Street".

 

 

The protagonist's trip to work is a journey through all kinds of urban absurdities. The attraction of the novel lies in McInerney's humor and his gift of observation.

At the subway station you wait fifteen minutes on the platform for a train. Finally, a local, enervated by graffiti, shuffles into the station.You get a seat and hoist a copy of the New York Post. [...]
The train shudders and pitches toward Fourteenth Street, stopping twice for breathers in the tunnel. You are reading about Liz Taylor's new boyfriend when a sooty hand taps your shoulder. You do not have to look up to know you are facing a casualty, one of the city's MIAs. You are more than willing to lay some silver on the physically handicapped, but folk with the long-distance eyes give you the heebie-jeebies.
The second time he taps your shoulder you look up. His clothes and hair are fairly neat, as if he had only recently let go of social convention, but his eyes are out-to-lunch and his mouth is working furiously.
"My birthday," he says, "is January thirteenth. I will be twenty-nine years old."
Somehow he makes this sound like a threat to kill you with a blunt object.
"Great," you say, going back to the paper.  

It's ten-fifty when you get to Times Square. You come up on Seventh Avenue blinking. The sunlight is excessive. You grope for your shades. Down Forty-second Street, through the meat district. Every day the same spiel from the same old man: "Girls, girls, girls - check 'em out, check 'em out. Take a free look, gentlemen. Check it out, check it out." The words and rhythm never vary. Kinky Karla, Naughty Lola, Sexsational Live Revue - girls, girls, girls. Waiting for a light at Forty-second, you scope along the announcements of ancient upcoming events, strangling the lamppost like kudzu, a fresh poster with the headline MISSING PERSON.

  "...this novella attests to the author's comic gifts, his ear for street-smart dialogue, his instinctive feel for the rhythms of New York City." (Michiko Kakutani, New York Times)  

  "This is the echo of New York, all right, and if you have a love affair with it, you'll recognize the truth in Mr. McInerney's landscapes." (William Kotzwinkle, New York Times)  

 

 

Links:

Inofficial Bright Lights, Big City Page

Salon Interview

Writer's Digest Interview

 

 

Quotes taken from Bright Lights, Big City, Random House, New York 1984.

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