When Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City was published in 1984, it took the publishing world by storm and earned him permanent membership in the 1980’s club of young edgy writers dubbed “The Brat Pack”. Bret Easton Ellis (Less Than Zero, American Psycho) was the other founding member. Bright Lights, Big City follows the emotional, psychological, and spiritual downward spiral of a young would-be writer in the fast-lane of the mid 1980’s Manhattan club scene. His wife has left him, his job as a fact checker at a prestigious but snooty “New York” magazine oppresses him, and he lives in a cocaine-addled twilight zone. The first chapter, entitled “It’s 6 AM, Do You Know Where You Are?” begins:
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not. A small voice in side you insists that this epidemic lack of clarity is a result of too much of that already.
Confessional stories about people on the descent, whether into madness, depression, dissipation, alcoholism, or any other form of self-destruction are a genre unto themselves that was not invented by McInerney. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield tells us about his own drive toward that cliff from which he hopes to protect all the children. In The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood descends into suicidal depression. In John O’Brien’s Leaving Las Vegas, Ben Sanderson literally drinks himself to death.
What makes McInerney’s novel unique both then and now is that it is entirely written in second person. “You,” the reader, are character in the story. It is a testament to McInerney’s talent that he wrote a whole book in this unusual still and managed to pull it off.