Washington -- Jay McInerney looks a little like Wally Cleaver by way of Princeton: Tall and boyish-looking at 37, he carries the imprint of time in Ivy League schools by dressing this mid-June day in blue blazer, white polo shirt and jeans. It's only when you hear the voice -- still slightly adenoidal, carrying through sarcasm the suggestion of a long-time smart-aleck -- that he seems, really, to be more like Eddie Haskell.
That's apparent despite the advance buzz on his current publicity tour to promote his fourth novel, "Brightness Falls": that Jay McInerney, one-time literary Wunderkind and media hog, has, indeed, Mellowed and Settled Down. No more cocaine and wild parties in New York, much like the characters in his best-selling first novel, "Bright Lights, Big City" -- Jay McInerney has married again and lives half the year in, of all places, Nashville, in the mansion owned by his third wife, Helen Bransford.
And he's said to be allowing that yes, Mr. McInerney himself had something to do with the media blitz and contentious relations with critics, telling a West Coast interviewer recently, "I got swept away for a while. I'm not thrilled with what I did and said." (After all, this is the guy who wrote in Esquire in 1989 that critics of his writing and other young authors were but "hemorrhoidal guardians.")
So when asked here how he kept his sanity while absorbing all the critical shots -- many of them quite nasty and gratuitous -- since "Bright Lights" was published in 1984, Mr. McInerney has a sardonic smile and this response:
"I just cashed my royalty checks and kept writing, basically -- you know?"
He gives that funny little laugh of his -- something like "hunnhh?," coming out of his nose and slightly incongruous for someone approaching middle age. It's more like what you'd expect from the guy in high school with the perpetual smirk. Like Eddie Haskell, in fact.
"Brightness Falls," though, does indicate a break from his first three novels. Set in New York in the late 1980s, it focuses on a group of affluent young Manhattanites -- prime McInerney subjects -- who must deal with the inevitable fallout of a morally empty way of life at the time that Wall Street is on the brink of a huge collapse. "It has increasing depth and is more deeply felt than his books had been in the past," says Tom Mallon, the literary editor of GQ, who will publish a short story by Mr. McInerney in October.
Indeed, a chief criticism of Mr. McInerney's earlier books is that his characters are basically shallow. He concedes the point somewhat, but takes pains to note that in "Brightness Falls," Corrine and Russell Calloway, the protagonists, are good people who struggle desperately to keep marriage and ideals intact.
"I wanted to take a couple of relatively decent and well-intentioned people, and let's take what looks like an ideal marriage, and set it down in this environment and see what happens," he says. "Russell is obviously caught up in the disease of the times; his viruses of ambition and greed for a while disorient him. But fundamentally he is a decent person who finds his way out at the end."
Mr. McInerney straightens up for a moment and continues, "I'm very proud of this book. It's more ambitious than my other books and I think I pulled it off."
There have been conspicuous dissenters -- "McInerney has talents but not the novelist's necessary talent of delivering his characters," wrote Richard Eder in the Los Angeles Times. But after the mixed reception for 1985's "Ransom" and savage criticism of 1988's "The Story of My Life," Mr. McInerney can revel in the positive reviews from such quarters as Time and the New York Times.
But lest one think he's getting carried away by this apparent Era of Good Feeling, he adds quickly: "I'm never going to feel that all of a sudden I'm a better writer when and if the critics all come around. And anyway, some of it is way too predictable -- I mean, there was an inevitable pendulum swing that would come back my way sooner or later."
So a thick skin and thick wallet help him ignore those who would still do battle with him over the literary Brat Pack, or minimalism, or excessive celebrity, or anything else for which Jay McInerney has taken a hit -- rightly or wrongly. He gives a charming assessment of playing literary dodge ball, appearing philosophical, defiant and slightly hurt all at once:
"It bothered me when after the success of 'Bright Lights, Big City,' people started reacting in a very personal way. There was so much ill-spirited envy, and the malice of strangers was a new concept for me. It took me a while to get used to it. I wanted to say to those people: 'I didn't steal your job, or the bread out of your mouth, or your child, nor did I, as far as I know, [have sex with] your wife. So why are you mad at me?' "
Too much publicity
He stops for a moment and says in mock innocence: "I have this ability to work people up into a froth."
"I don't really know why," he answers after some thought, though the look on his face and tone in his voice indicate he probably does know. "But there's no question that in retrospect, 'Bright Lights, Big City' and I got way too much publicity. It was sort of a landslide of media attention, more than almost any book merits. It was a little bit much, and I think people reacted against it -- and some felt I needed to be taken down."
But lost in the McInerney-bashing, he says, was the idea that he was a serious author.
"I'm in it for the long haul -- I'm not going to go away," he says. I mean, I had the most traditional literary background. Before 'Bright Lights' was published, I went to Williams and Princeton, studied writing [at Syracuse University] with Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. I was getting my Ph.D in Elizabethan drama when 'Bright Lights' was published. I guess that got obscured in the publicity about New York City and the night life and the girls and the drugs."
Now he's contemplating work on two novels, one set in New England and the other in Los Angeles.
That's right -- nothing more on New York for Mr. McInerney, at least in the foreseeable future.
"In this book, I sort of wrote about the end of one era," he says, tapping a copy of "Brightness Falls." "I'm not sure how the New York Zeitgeist has reshaped itself, so I'm just going to take a little time off from New York and see what develops."
And though Mr. McInerney acknowledges the excesses in his private life, he doesn't think his writing has suffered as a result.
"I think I learned something that hardly any other American of my generation knows, which is something that Norman Mailer knows -- what it is like to be processed by the great American dream machine, what it's like to be commodified by the media. That's something that only politicians and actors learn first-hand.
"It gave me an insight into the American dream, and the way our culture works today. I couldn't have written this book if I hadn't lived the life I had the last eight years."