Bright Light Illuminates the Gloom


Reportage on the death of the cozy, old-fashioned writer-editor relationship has put money in the pockets of hundreds of journalists over the past decade. Gone are the days--so we're led to believe--of the nourishing publisher who will print the bad with the good, all in the name of developing the career of a writer whose masterpiece may follow and even depend on the current misstep.

Not so for Jay McInerney. Blessed with a support system that is the envy of Writers Anonymous, McInerney has assembled an astonishing flea market of books in the dozen years since the appearance of "Bright Lights, Big City." At times, this editorial enabling turns out maddening trash. How else to explain the tin ear of "Ransom" after the perfect pitch of "Bright Lights"? And how else to explain the luster of a single story within the tarnished brass of McInerney's latest collection?

"Model Behavior," a novel and seven stories, is built with the familiar blocks of McInerney's career--TriBeCan models, recreational drugs, self-deprecatory writers and a soupcon of Nippon thrown in for high tone. The architecture is equally familiar--Salinger aiming for Cheever, Never Never Land with a dash of Betty Ford. The novel, "Model Behavior," is itself a homage to the author of "Catcher in the Rye"--Holden Caulfield matured into Connor McKnight, a writer for a fashion magazine, Holden's sister Phoebe reincarnated as the depressed Brooke, turning the full power of her anorexic wisdom onto the hero's plight--the unanticipated desertion of his fabulous model girlfriend.

But the best story of the collection is perhaps the simplest, the one that tries to do the least and finally rewards the reader with a glimpse of the suburban Olympus of Cheeverland where McInerney would like to live. "How It Ended" is set at the dinner hour, two young couples at a Caribbean resort, dining together for the first time, trading stories on how they met. "As a matrimonial lawyer," the narrator says, "I deal extensively in endings, so it's a relief, a sort of holiday, to visit the realm of beginnings. And I ask because I've always enjoyed telling my own story--our story, I should say--which I'd always felt was unique."

There is no simpler way to open a good yarn, and no better way to whet the appetite than to declare: I'm going to spin a tale better than unique. And McInerney delivers. Yes, there are drugs; yes, there are yuppies. But there is a real live entertaining story, an improbable cocktail of gun-running and matrimony topped by an ending that captures in a single satisfying paragraph the disillusion that McInerney labors to create in the rest of his stories.

It's a tribute to the McInerney Machine that "Model Behavior" was published, if only to get this story into a book. The thing with writers is, to paraphrase Salinger himself, "if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it's bad if you say anything to them." On the carousel of publishing, McInerney's editor has certainly displayed model behavior.

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