Literary man about town

Jay McInerney stopped using drugs years ago, but the bad-boy persona has stuck.

Jay McInerney 88 248 (photo credit: Bloomberg)
Jay McInerney 88 248
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
How It Ended: New and Collected Stories By Jay McInerney Knopf 352 pages; $25.95 'It's scary to sit down at your computer and think about spending the next 18 months of your life doing something you're not sure you can commit to' There was a time, after the publication of his debut novel Bright Lights, Big City in 1984, when it seemed that Jay McInerney could go to seed. The autobiographical work recounted the coke-fueled nightlife of a New Yorker fact-checker, sold more than a million copies and defined the spirit of the exuberant 1980s. But what does an epoch-definer do once his epoch has been defined? Await the backlash, in McInerney's case. His follow-up novels Ransom (1985) and Story of My Life (1988) were received tepidly in the US. The 1988 film of Bright Lights, starring a miscast Michael J. Fox, was a monumental flop. Nor did it bode well to be compared constantly with his hero F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was anointed the voice of the jazz age on the publication of This Side of Paradise in 1920. Like McInerney, Fitzgerald was known as much for his carousing as for his novels about the hedonistic rich, and he died an alcoholic at 44. What gin was to Fitzgerald, Bolivian marching powder became to McInerney and his contemporaries. There was a risk that McInerney's hard-partying ways would catch up with him, too, as the go-go years gave way to the jaded '90s and left their literary spokesman behind. But of all the literary brat pack - the label applied to writers such as Bret Easton Ellis and Tama Janowitz, who satirized their generation's mores - McInerney maintained the highest profile, partly due to his star-studded social life and his willingness to indulge gossip columnists. But it was also because foreign critics kept trumpeting his work. "There's a less hysterical reaction to my books in Europe," McInerney explains. "They're treated more as literary events and less as new installments in Jay McInerney's autobiography." We're chatting in the spacious sitting room of his Lower East Side penthouse, to which I've been escorted via the wood-paneled elevator by a surly doorman who calls him Mr. Jay. "I've always wanted to live in a penthouse," McInerney says. He is 54 and his waist has thickened, but he remains boyish and is smartly dressed in a blue shirt and black suede loafers. It's been said that every time McInerney writes a book, he gets a new girlfriend and a new apartment. He moved here two years ago, about the time he married his fourth wife, publishing heiress Anne Hearst, and released his seventh novel, The Good Life. "For the first time almost that I can remember, I'm pretty serene," he says. It's clear that McInerney won't be changing his home or his wife with the publication of his new collection of 26 short stories, How It Ended: New and Collected Stories (Knopf). The dozen new stories were published earlier this year as The Last Bachelor in Great Britain, where it's his second collection following 2000's How it Ended (a volume that drew together the seven stories included in the American hardcover edition of his 1998 novel Model Behavior). But How it Ended: New and Collected Stories is his first volume of short stories exclusively to be published in the United States. Writing a novel is analogous to the long-term commitment of marriage, he says; short stories are like one-night stands. "It's scary to sit down at your computer and think about spending the next 18 months of your life doing something you're not sure you can commit to," he says, smiling. "But with the short story, you can just experiment because it will be over in a few hours." McInerney stopped using the illicit drugs years ago, but the bad-boy persona sticks. In 2005, Ellis, his close friend, published Lunar Park, featuring a designer drug-consuming, social-climbing character named Jay McInerney as his "toxic twin." "I thought it was funny," says the McInerney before me. "But the Jay McInerney that appears in it wasn't the Jay McInerney of the present." He continues to go out most nights, however, and occasionally visits clubs with younger friends, but admits that now he finds the club scene "a little repetitious and boring." His charm seems spontaneous, but it didn't come easily to a child forever forced to fit into new environments. The son of a paper company sales executive, McInerney moved frequently between cities in the US, Canada and Britain. "I was a very awkward kid," he recalls, "so I went to some lengths to create a persona more sophisticated and polished than my real self." He attended 18 schools, his longest stay at a single institution ending when he was expelled for exploding a lavatory. So he craved the limelight as a child, too? He laughs easily: "Yeah, I suppose there's a continuity there." IT SEEMED natural that he'd end up in New York, "the home town of restless transients and ambitious provincials." He moved here at 22, a year before his mother succumbed to cancer. That sent McInerney into a tailspin like that experienced by the hero of Bright Lights, whose mother's death gives the novel its melancholic undertow. Writing in The New Yorker after his father died, McInerney recounted his mother's deathbed confession to her son about an extramarital affair. His brother was initially furious but has since forgiven him, a fraternal feud echoed in one of the dozen stories in The Last Bachelor. While at The New Yorker, McInerney became friendly with the writer Raymond Carver, who encouraged him to apply for a graduate writing fellowship rather than working full-time to support himself. In any event, The New Yorker fired him, so he headed to Syracuse University, where he studied under Carver and Tobias Wolff and wrote Bright Lights. There he met philosophy doctoral student Merry Reymond, who became his second wife. His first wife, a half-Japanese runway model whom he met during a year teaching English in Japan, ditched him for a Milanese photographer after four months. His marriage to Reymond lasted seven years, but fractures began to emerge after he became a celebrity. "She was tired of all the attention that I was getting," he says. They separated in 1987, after McInerney cheated on her with Marla Hanson, a high-profile model whose career had been destroyed when a razor-wielding attacker slashed her cheek. Reymond attempted suicide. "I'd been ill-equipped to understand her bipolar condition from the beginning because I'd never encountered anything like it," he says. "I used to think she was just moody." McInerney spent $200,000 on her psychiatric treatment; Reymond returned the favor by writing an excoriating novel about him and an article for Spy magazine in which she described him as "dangerous and not very nice." His obsessive affair with Hanson, complete with mutual cheating and flinging wineglasses, ended after four years, sending McInerney into the comforting arms of southern belle and jewelry designer Helen Bransford. He once described Bransford, who soon became his third wife, as "cool, like a guy. The first person I'd been with for any length of time who wasn't wounded emotionally or terribly needy." Hardly. Insecure about being seven years older than McInerney, she underwent a face-lift and wrote a book, Welcome to Your Face-Lift, about the experience. Charmed by Bransford's southern airs, McInerney took little convincing when she suggested they move to a ranch in Tennessee. From these bucolic years came The Last of the Savages (1996), a multigenerational saga of the Deep South that confounded critics, much as Tennessee did McInerney. New York's bright lights eventually drew him back: "It was a sojourn and I'm glad I had it, but I won't be retiring to the South. I was always an outsider, observing, and I could never really belong there." When Bransford suggested kids, McInerney obliged, though he'd always felt he could postpone fatherhood indefinitely. But she was 43 when they married and, after a series of miscarriages, the couple resorted to a surrogate mother. Bransford arranged for a friend who was a country music singer to donate eggs. The transition from man-about-town to father wasn't easy for McInerney. "A part of me was afraid of growing up, afraid of assuming responsibility for anyone else." For the most part, he managed to abstain from going out until after their children, John Barrett McInerney III and Maisie, were asleep. HE FELT, too, that his work needed to mature. In 1998, he'd just published Model Behavior, about a 32-year-old writer of celebrity profiles who is abandoned by his model girlfriend. It received respectable reviews, but McInerney realized it was past time to move on from writing about overprivileged youths behaving badly. When he tried to embark on a new novel, however, he found himself blocked for three years. "I hadn't figured out how to make the transition to something more mature," he says. Gary Fisketjon, a friend from college and his career-long editor, remembers McInerney as deeply troubled during those years: "He had always got writing done, so it was a horrible shock to find himself in a period when he wasn't producing pages." As well, McInerney's marriage to Bransford was collapsing and he became clinically depressed. Two years of therapy and antidepressants followed, and a return to drug abuse. Bransford won custody of the twins on their divorce in 2000 and moved to the Hamptons, but McInerney remains on friendly terms with her and visits his children most weekends. The 14-year-olds relish googling their father's name and assailing him with questions about his playboy past. His daughter, McInerney boasts, is a precociously talented poet. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, McInerney struggled to justify the ironic voice that had sustained his career. "There was a strange congruence between my own mood and that cataclysm which affected everybody so deeply," he recalls. He witnessed the destruction of the World Trade Center from his apartment: "I just never felt the same about looking out that window, so I left that building very shortly thereafter." He wrote The Good Life, about two Manhattan families rocked by the bombings into reexamining their lives. That novel, which finds the characters of Brightness Falls (1992) in midlife, helped McInerney overcome depression. It also marked a turning point in his work. "I found a way to write about middle age," he says, "about marriage, about fatherhood, about mortality." Fisketjon considers The Good Life McInerney's best work, with characters marked by a new complexity. Since July, McInerney has been working on a novel about a New Yorker forced to reinvent himself after losing his financial and social standing, and it's as though he's writing it in real time. "Right now the book is December 2008, and I just didn't imagine that current events would seep into the novel quite as much as they have," he says. He speculates that his next work will also address the meltdown of the Wall Street money culture. Not, he stresses, because he has ever tried to capture a zeitgeist, but because Manhattan is, and always will be, his subject. "New York is going to be a very different place in the next year or two," he says. "I don't want New York to descend into poverty and chaos, but I think that a bit of sanity, a bit of gravity, is a good thing." The author, a PhD student at the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins University, is working on a book for Scribe Publications entitled Obama's World: Conversations About American Foreign Policy.