Before reading Bright Lights, Big City my only experience with the so-called Brat Pack of the eighties was reading Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. I didn’t particularly like it, but I could appreciate what he was doing—satirizing a certain demographic and culture—and the skill with which he did it. I feel pretty much the same way about Jay McInerney’s debut novel. I’m glad to have read it, since it’s one of the most famous American novels written in the second person POV and certainly carries an undeniable cultural cachet. I suppose it’s praise to say that the book is sleek, superficial, and fairly weightless, since that’s exactly the type of people McInerney set out to capture.
The book was published in 1984, and is set around the same time—the mid eighties. We’re thrown into the New York City yuppie party scene by way of our unnamed main character, a fact checker for some famous magazine (likely The New Yorker) by day, and a hedonistic, cocaine-snorting asshole the rest of the time. His model wife has recently left him, a fact he tells no one, and in the wake of her abandonment he sinks quickly into a vortex of sleepless days, pathetic romantic fumblings, Bolivian marching powder, embarrassments at work, and general self-pity. Personal backstory, a mother’s illness for instance, is revealed late in the book, presumably in an attempt to humanize our character and compel us to root for his salvation.
I never could figure out just what about this book required it being told in second person, yet I still was consistently impressed with how well McInerney pulls it off. His writing is economical and crisp, acerbic and often very witty. It’s very clear from this, his first novel, that he has tremendous talent. But it doesn’t change the fact that his protagonist—and by virtue of the point of view, one we’re supposed to identify strongly with—spends much of the book being a weak, self-absorbed prick. I get that this is intentional, as McInerney was clearly trying to say something about a generation of fast lane, ferociously entitled cokeheads. That collection of people represents an extremely unappealing and pretty disgusting part of modern American culture to be sure, and I guess it’s to the book’s credit that it so deftly portrays this. But as clever and accurate as it may be, it didn’t make for an enjoyable reading experience (personally).