OCTOBER 10, 1988
Story of My Life
By Jay McInerney
(Atlantic Monthly Press, $16.95)
Beware of a novel built upon a catchphrase. A flip curl eventually loses its hold. “Story of my life,” toss-away phrase for a toss-away life, is the signature curl of Alison Poole, postmodern boy-toy by night, aspiring actress by day. “Acting is the first thing that’s made me get up in the morning. The first year I was in New York I didn’t do anything but guys and blow. Staying out all night at the Surf Club and Zulu, waking up at five in the afternoon with plugged sinuses and sticky hair. Some kind of white stuff in every opening. Story of my life.” So it, like, fries Alison’s bacon that her much-divorced Daddy would rather encourage his latest squeeze than fork over money for her drama school tuition. “He actually believes her when she says she’s writing a novel but when I want to spend eight hours a day busting ass at Lee Strasberg’s it’s like, another one of Alison’s crazy ideas. Story of my life.”
Acting class is about Alison’s speed because it showcases her exhibitionism (she boasts in one class about a blowjob she gave that morning) and doesn’t bother the Do Not Disturb sign tacked to her brow. It allows her to be her: a hysterical airhead. Alison can only handle a soft curriculum. “[W]hat were the two things that you were never supposed to mix in chemistry class or you’d like blow up the whole school? Not oil and water—something else. So much for my education. Blanks that never got filled in. None of the above. Story of my life.” Her friends are blank capsules who hiphop like jumping beans, “Story of Skip’s life, trading commodities.” “She said she’s totally in lust, she’d met a great new guy. Story of her life.”
Story of my life. Totally in lust. Can’t rape the willing. Shivering wreck. Legend in his own mind. Give me a break. Yada yada yada. Unhappy unit. Story of My Life becomes a daisy chain of catchphrases. “Story of my life, right? . . . But then I remember my little problem, which makes me a mondo unhappy unit.” All talk, no texture. Jay McInerney’s third novel speaks in Valley Girl lingo spread with a thick crudola of New York chutzpah. Nerviness and spaciness cross voltage behind spiked eyeballs.
Stylistically McInerney is walking a swinging tightrope. Novels written entirely in pop idiom seldom succeed, not only because idiom changes (today’s trendy expression is tomorrow’s corny antique: “pour me a cup of Java,” said the beatnik to the bearded lady), but because non-stop hipness is too narrow a mode for the full spectrum of human feeling. All-talk novels, from Andy Warhol’s a to Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction, are narrow bands of static, nigh on unreadable. Even Norman Mailer, one of McInerney’s heroes, couldn’t sus- tain the pop braggadocio with his Texas stud narrator swinging his dong in Why Are We in Vietnam? The novel became a no-exit language machine, an orgone box of pun and hyperbole.
McInerney does make a game try. The early pages of Story of My Life have a snazzy rhythm and snotty attack. Take Alison’s friend Didi, for example. “If Didi made a list of her favorite things I guess cocaine would be at the top and sunlight wouldn’t even make the cut.” Or take Skip in commodities, still mooning after his college sweetheart. “And I’m like, give me a break, Skip. Give yourself a break. This is ten years after. This is nineteen eighty-whatever.” In a daze of drugs and shrinking daylight, Alison grazes at in-spots that already seem passé(Nell’s, for instance) and grills herself brown at the tanning salon. But mostly she talks trash. Alison’s telephone line is her intravenous tube. Much of the novel consists of telephone calls—
So of course the phone rings.
A guy’s voice, Barry something, says, may I speak to Alison Poole?
And I’m like, you’re doing it. I’m a friend of Skip’s, he says.
I go, if this is some kind of joke I’m like really not amused. Hey, no joke, he goes. I’m just, you know. Skip told me you guys weren’t going out anymore and I saw you once at Indochine and I thought maybe we could do dinner sometime.
I’m like, I don’t believe this. What am I?—the York Avenue Escort Service? I go, did Skip also tell you about the disease he gave me? That shrinks this
Barry’s equipment pretty quick. Suddenly he’s got a call on his other line.
Sure you do.
—and answering messages. “I call Dean again and get his machine. Story of my life.” Alison herself seems to have a brain equipped with call-waiting. Every new thought makes an interruptive [click].
McInerney has a flair for flash intros. He illuminates Alison’s circle of cokewhore friends with a strobe light, its pulsations catching the ghostly ruin beneath their glamour. He also has an ear for how cunty-mouthed a coke whore like Alison sounds: “Alex was really pissed when I read in Vogue or somewhere that there’s like twelve hundred calories or something like that in an average load of come. Because at the time I was kind of anorexic and the last thing I was looking for was a way to swallow an extra thousand-plus calories.” Sex for Alison’s circle is a competitive ranking; one of her gal pals records all of their bedmates on a computer file, compiling data on length, width, position, duration.
Since this band of narcissists thinks the world pivots on their pelvises, every setback is shrilly inflated to global status. Pregnant, Alison throws herself a pity party. “And I don’t have a nickel to my name, I owe everybody in the western hemisphere, I’m like a fucking Third World country—empty treasury, exploding birth rate. Jesus.” (Earlier in the novel she had lied about an abortion to pry money out of a former beau for her portion of the rent.) Ironic that McInerney recently told New York magazine, “I’m too young to be a one-note kind of guy when I have a more symphonic mind.” Story of My Life is only alive when it sticks to its bitchy note of petulance. Beyond that, it’s a writing exercise.
Symphonic mind or not, so far McInerney hasn’t demonstrated the dramatic amplitude or organizational skills to be a novelist. His specialty is the smart-ass monologue. Brief as it is, Story of My Life feels force-fed, crammed with familiar junk. “Jeannie’s in a real pissy mood and gets right on the phone to her fiancé so I watch ‘Wheel of Fortune’ in the bedroom. When she’s finally finished . . . she hangs up and calls the deli to order some Diet Coke and a large bag of barbecue potato chips and a pack of Merit Ultra Lights.” For variety from all this zoning out and pigging out in front of the TV, we’re taken on a needless tour of midtown Manhattan, where Alison pukes at the observation deck of the Empire State Building and purchases a four-pack of vibrators at a porn shop. McInerney even pads the book with oft-told jokes, including the one about Pia Zadora starring in a production of The Diary of Anne Frank. (Punchline: “She’s in the attic!”) He resorts to these stale tricks with the desperation of a host whose dinner party is dying. Losing his cool to flopsweat, he really begins to reach. “I remember I read somewhere that outlaw guy John Dillinger had one that was about a foot and a half long and it’s preserved in the Smithsonian or someplace. Now that’s what I call the Washington Monument.” Waiter—check, please!
Undoing the novel even more than its patchy construction are its banal psychologizing and sappy sense of woe. As Bright Lights, Big City and Ransom showed, beneath McInerney’s roomy Armani suits beats the ♥-shaped pillow of a blatant sentimentalist. His humor is a cover for heartbreak. It’s bad enough in small doses, as when Alison heads uptown to a crackhouse and the vials pop under her feet, “breaking like little promises.” And when a crack dealer named Mannie, an exploited ethnic literally outclassed by his white customers, leaps suicidally from a sixth-story window, the message is even heavier: the fall of man, no less. (Mannie, geddit?)
Alison later makes a totally out-of-character visit to Mannie in the hospital only so Story of My Life can survey man’s fallen state. It’s a state of grace, as Mannie stares like a Moonie into space, emancipated from his chain of pain. “The thing is, he looks happy, which is more than you can say for the rest of us.” Mannie is sacrificed to illustrate the posh vacuum of Alison’s privileged upbringing.
Early in the novel Alison’s friends mockingly allude to Elvis Costello’s song “Alison,” and McInerney seems to have keyed his characterization from the lyric, “Alison, I know this world is killing you,” For unlike Mannie, his Alison’s a-hurting inside. She’s sorrowful empty.
Stripped of its sequins and sticky residue, Story of My Life is basically another money-can’t-buy-love tale of a poor little rich girl who’s been given anything but parental affection. Mommy is a lush. Daddy is a lech. But her heart belongs to Daddy. “ . . . I sort of fantasize that he’ll pick up the phone some day and say, is that you, Alison?” Shameless, McInerney even plants a “Rosebud” clue to Alison’s disaffection, a horse she adored as a child named Dangerous Dan, which her father had killed for the insurance. Denied Daddy’s care, she’s doomed to hagdom. So young, so used-up: “Ten days from now I’ll be twenty-one. It seems like I’ve been on the planet a lot longer than that.” To keep this cornball crying jag going, McInerney strings the reader along by having Alison ask acquaintances what the three biggest lies are. One is, the check’s in the mail, two is, I won’t come in your mouth, but what’s the third? She can’t recall. I’m usually hopeless at guessing games, but even I was able to figure out what the third lie was, and sure enough, in the book’s final pages, the payoff: “The third lie is, I love you.”
No, the third biggest lie is, “Jay, those critics are just jealous!” In retrospect, lucky timing landed a windfall for Bright Lights, Big City. It caught the last tailwind of the downtown club scene before tired trendies began settling in as sofa spuds in front of their VCRs. (By the time the movie version starring Michael J. Fox was released, it had no electric scene to plug into.) And McInerney’s sarcastic exposure of the workings of The New Yorker’s fact-checking department in Bright Lights came at a time when The New Yorker was still envisioned as a bloodless Henry James arena of sacred hush and elaborate fuss, where enormous qualms were suspended like raindrops from church cobwebs. Now that William Shawn no longer mystically ministers the magazine’s business with his special dematerializing touch, it’s a more pedestrian place.
In E.J. Kahn’s chatty diary of 1987 at The New Yorker (Year of Change, Viking, $19.95), there’s a revealing swipe at McInerney: “From London, a copy of a Jay McInerney piece in the Sunday Times about the New Yorker. Its title is ‘Goodbye, Mr. Shawn.’ McInerney was fired from Shawn’s magazine for being a lousy checker, and his article presents evidence of why that was a good idea: ‘And somewhere in the mind of every young man or woman who has ever sent a short story or resume to the shabby offices on West 43rd Street was the knowledge that J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye had first appeared in these pages.’ ’Twould have been nice if it had, but it hadn’t.”
Revealing, because Story of My Life is also a misplaced homage to Salinger. Bright Lights, Big City was so often compared to The Catcher in the Rye that McInerney seems to have thought it incumbent to end Story of My Life in a way that acknowledges the Salingeresque debt. (The Catcher in the Rye is also one of the few vernacular novels that has lasted.) Where Holden Caulfield ends up in some sort of hospital under a shrink’s supervision, Alison crashes in some clinic in Minnesota where she has white dreams while under sedation. Horses appear in both of their memories as emblems of childhood reverie. Like Holden, Alison is suspended on the cusp of adulthood, mentally bandaged from trauma. But Salingeresque innocence can’t be faked, even by Salinger himself (as his polishing of the coy precocities of the Glass family proved). Where Holden seemed genuinely lost, Alison seems artificially adrift. For McInerney not only sentimentalizes, he moralizes. He’s the one who signs her in for treatment. Alison Must Pay for Her Partying. That’s why she’s in the clinic: she’s the symbol of misspent youth. Miss Selfish Cokehead nineteen eighty-whatever.
But the influence of Salinger goes deeper than McInerney’s manhandling of his heroine. Story of My Life finds McInerney seeking a literary role model to keep him righteous, a great white father in whose moccasins he can walk. In interviews he broods about the fate of being a burnout, a literary lush like Fitzgerald or Capote, and in his new novel he douses one of these hollow men with pissy scorn. On Kentucky Derby day, Alison’s boyfriend Dean wagers on a horse named . . . Capote. But Capote can’t handle the far turn. After the race, “Dean comes over and goes, I guess it was pretty stupid to think a horse named Capote could go the distance. He says, it’s a case of sport imitating life— brilliant start, pathetic finish.” Brilliant start, pathetic finish is the epitaph that McInerney fears after the fast start of Bright Lights, Big City. Careermanship is the true anxiety bedeviling Story of My Life. So to woo the gods who safekeep literary health and longevity, McInerney sticks a pin into Capote’s puffy effigy (black magic) and lights a stick of incense at the shrine of Salinger (white magic).
But one could argue that the biggest hex on McInerney is his own bad judgment. Case in point: Littering the streets and supermarkets of Manhattan this fall are stacks of catalogs for the Learning Annex, a singles mingles “meet market” that offers phony-baloney adult education courses in wine tasting, white collar boxing, the healing power of crystals, etc. On the back cover of the latest catalog is a full-page notice trumpeting a one-night seminar titled “How to Write and Get Anything Published—With Jay McInerney.” The course description is priceless, “Heralded as the ‘Salinger of the ’80s,’ applauded by critics as the new wry and passionate spokesman for the upwardly-mobile generation, McInerney stepped out from his lonely 1-typewriter world onto the golden alter [sic] of publishing success.” Step right up to the tent, ladies and gentleman. “Spend an evening with this literary phenomenon and find out how he made it to the top, how he continues to stay there, and how you can too.”
Even in his cups Truman Capote never sank this low. For all his authorial airs, McInerney has cheesy instincts. He can’t be doing the Learning Annex gig because he needs the money; it’s instant feedback he’s after, quickie acclaim. He’s slumming after fame. No wonder Story of My Life reads as if it were written for and about groupies. That’s his constituency. In Story of My Life, Jaybird is giving his fans their fill. But such slim pickings! Mere crumbs scattered along the golden “alter.” Like totally not enough.