Jay McInerney has a new novel coming out this August. Before reading it, I decided it was time to go back and reread his first book, the one that made him famous. Bright Lights, Big City was published in 1984, and it made McInerney the literary bad boy of a generation. Would the book stand the test of time? Time to find out.

One notable thing about Bright Lights is that it is written entirely in the second person, a challenging form. The nameless narrator is simply called "you," and we watch over his shoulder as he debauches himself all over New York. He has a job at a prestigious magazine, also unnamed but obviously The New Yorker, where he works in the amusingly titled Department of Factual Verification and where he is, as we and he both clearly see, in deep peril of losing his job. In fact, he is losing his grip entirely: His fashion model wife has dumped him in a callous phone call from Paris, and his alleged friend, the also amusingly named Tad Allagash, leads him all over town in the wee hours seeking the "it" party, as well as seeking copious quantities of "Bolivian Marching Powder" to snort. Our dear boy rarely sleeps (the idea of spending the evening in an armchair and slippers with a good book has great appeal for him but is ever illusory), rarely eats, frequently snorts, and rarely gets the facts right. Here's a video of Jimmy Reed singing the tune that inspired the book's title:

 

A reckoning is clearly coming. And while the book feels frivolous at first, a mere sketch of a well-educated white-collar white boy from the 'burbs with writerly aspirations taking many wrong paths, it evolves, in its telegraphically written but targeted way, into a surprisingly deep and moving character study. Deep into the book, when we discover what it is that may in fact have sent him on this careening path, he has evolved into a stand-in for the blighted, disappointed, and yet ever-hopeful seeker in all of us, a man worthy of shrugging on Gatsby's mantle.

Bright Lights apparently got its start in life when the real-life Jay McInerney, after a real-life all-night partying binge, wrote the words:  "You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning."  This turned into short story, "It's Six A.M., Do You Know Where You Are?", eventually published in The Paris Review, and the story in turn grew to the slim but powerful and now iconic novel. The line became the book's opening line. And the book was made into a successful 1988 movie:

If you've missed or forgotten Bright Lights, Big City, then you've overlooked a literary gem. I say put it on your reading list!

Note: I'll be soon be speaking to Jay McInerney about his new book, Bright, Precious Days.  Stay tuned for that report!

Lynn Rosen is the co-owner of the Open Book Bookstore in Elkins Park, PA. Send her your book-related recommendations or questions at lynn@openbookphilly.com