Bad boy returns to bright lights Publishing: Promoting 'Savages,' the notorious author has a few words about critics seemingly upset by his mere existence.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Jay McInerney is a good sport. Here it is, almost 100 degrees, his luggage is lost and he has quickly divined that his publisher has not put him up in Baltimore's best hotel, nor even its second-best.

And now a reporter wants to take him on a mini-tour of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Baltimore haunts, because McInerney is often compared to Fitzgerald -- a comparison his critics say he encourages, but he says he doesn't see it at all. Still, he's game for this field trip, thoughtfully examining the Bolton Hill townhouse where Fitzgerald wrote "Tender is the Night."

"One of the places he wrote 'Tender is the Night,' " he points out. "He worked on it for over nine years, in many places."

Then he settles into the cool shadows of the Belvedere's Owl Bar, where Fitzgerald sometimes drank during his Baltimore sojourn, although it probably didn't have a pizza oven in the 1930s. The waiter brings McInerney a grilled salad, a curious concoction that arrives with a steak knife driven through its leafy heart.

For some reason, this brings to mind the reviews of McInerney's latest book, "The Last of the Savages," (Knopf, $24). How are they?

"Wildy mixed," he admits cheerfully. "And frankly, I'll tell you one thing I thought: I thought some of the New York reviewers would be over it by now, this snide, kind of personal attitude about me being the bad boy of the '80s.

"I wish I could say that some of it wasn't horribly predictable. Sadly for me, I am kind of a New York insider -- sadly because I know how this works. I know one guy who gave me a really negative review is very unhappy that I knew his wife before he did. Really, not to name any names."

It does sometimes seem as if critics have had their knives out for McInerney since his dazzling 1984 debut, "Bright Lights, Big City." And McInerney has drawn his sword as well -- quite literally once, waving a samurai blade in Esquire as he prepared to hack his critics' arguments to bits.

Undeniably, "Bright Lights, Big City," the story of a young man adrift in New York's clubland, was the right book at the right time. Written in the second person ("You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this"), it captured the Zeitgeist for a generation of readers who heretofore had never heard the word Zeitgeist. From then on, whenever a new young writer appeared on the scene -- Bret Easton Ellis, Douglas Coupland, David Foster Wallace -- he was inevitably compared to McInerney.

In the spotlight

His book was also the kind of juicy, first-time success that sparks a critical backlash -- especially when you are in the New York gossip columns and repeatedly photographed. A check of major newspapers in the Nexis database finds 990 references to McInerney.

"Let me just pose the question to you: Why did people get so hysterically upset in some quarters when I publish a book? What exactly am I guilty of here?" he asks.

"I understand why there's a backlash against me, because I did get a lot of attention. I did get very lucky with my first book, not that it wasn't a good book. In the end, even I was sick of seeing all these pictures of me and reading all this stuff about me."

His public image was not helped by his uneven second book, "Ransom," nor his third, the much-reviled "Story of My Life." (Although his good friend, British writer Julian Barnes, has long defended the latter, a party girl's whiney monologue, as a notable achievement in technique.)

By the time the '80s had ended, McInerney's second marriage had broken up, an unhappy story that would generate many more column inches. Asked if he remembers the worst thing ever written about him, McInerney quickly cites a Spy magazine interview with his ex-wife, Merry, while she was hospitalized for depression.

Her roman a clef about their marriage, "Burning Down the House," runs a close second. The story of a young woman married to a novelist whose success makes him a raving jerk, it was written in the tradition of "Heartburn," if not with the same brio.

"I was hoping it would be better than I was, that I would be a more interesting villain. I think I would have appreciated it more if it would have been sharper satire. But it's fairly crude." He pauses. "I just want to correct one mis-impression. My feet are not size 5 1/2 . They are 10 1/2 ."

Didn't remember that detail.

"I remember."

Four years ago, McInerney's press began improving. He published "Brightness Falls," a generally well-regarded novel about New York around the time of the '87 stock market crash. He married jewelry designer Helen Bransford. The two divide their time between New York and her hometown, Nashville.

His latest novel, "The Last of the Savages," is set partly in Tennessee as well, although it takes Memphis as its locale and the '60s as its primary decade. It concerns the friendship between Will Savage, a rich Southerner, and Patrick Keane, who yearns for class and stature.

Glamour gushed: "Maybe McInerney really is our Fitzgerald Like Jay Gatsby, McInerney has become a master of self-reinvention." The New York Times' Michiko Kakutani, long a McInerney nemesis, also discerned a Gatsby strain, but the comparison was not favorable: "In the end, we are left with the flimsy story of two boys with poor self-esteem."

Poor comparisons

McInerney says these Fitzgerald comparisons are off the mark.

"I wasn't even very current on Fitzgerald when all this stuff started coming up, so I went back and re-read it all" he says. "In 'Brightness Falls,' I suppose you could find some similarities of tone, and some similarities of tone in this book with his later work, but not with 'Gatsby,' which everyone is fixated on. People have a very narrow frame of reference and they tend to reach for what is easiest."

Although he doesn't look it, McInerney is now 41, just three years younger than Fitzgerald was when he died. He is settled, he has 18-month-old twins at home. An early death -- whether romantic or prosaic -- is not an appealing notion.

"Sometimes I think a few of my New York critics are mad at me because I didn't die at the right time in order to create the perfect myth," he muses.

Instead, he outlived the '80s and left the party -- a metaphor he uses twice in this conversation.

"It was 3: 30 a.m. and most of the other guests had left the party and I was in danger of being the last person to stay, drooling into the hostess' cleavage and saying what a good time I had, before a friend dragged me away," he elaborates. "I just decided I had to voluntarily leave the party."

The interview over, McInerney returns to his not-the-best-in-Baltimore hotel, where he appears to be the only guest wearing long pants. It is tempting to make some remark about how out of place he seems, some insipid rip-off of his first novel's first line, which appears in so many of those 990 Nexis entries.

But you are not the kind of girl who would try a cheap trick like that.

Pub Date: 5/23/96

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