Jay McInerney published his cocaine-infused debut novel Bright Lights, Big City in 1984, about the time I got my first staff gig as a writer and long before I thought I might publish a drug-infused debut novel.
I don’t believe I attended to its release, preoccupied as I was with meeting a 4000-word daily target. Its significance grew for me about 2008, after I discovered myself to be working on Bongs For Steve.
Bright Lights took up more and more space in my head as Bongs sauntered through a series of redrafts. About 2020, with the manuscript awaiting a final tweak, I purchased Bright Lights on Kindle, read the first chapter, and put it aside.
A couple of weeks ago I completed the read. It’s as good as I feared it would be. And yet less than I thought it might be.
Cocaine and nightclubs
What had led me to avoid purchasing the book was its intimidating reputation. On release, Bright Lights was, apparently, hip as. It was about life in the capital of the first world, New York. It was about cocaine, an expensive and scarce party drug that I’d never been offered, where I was writing about commonplace cannabis. It was about doing coke with pretty girls in the ladies’ at nightclubs, where my characters were getting silly on bong smoke in dingy share houses.
Having bought Bright Lights, what had led me to put it aside was the confidence I heard in its narrative voice. For one thing, that voice spoke flawlessly in the unusual and difficult present-tense, second-person. “You are not the kind of guy who would be in a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are …”
For another, the narrator’s self-understanding balanced criticism with appreciation in just the right way: he knew that he wasn’t all that, and that nevertheless he was a fair bit, and that he had a lot of fascinating stuff he was going to tell you, about his inner world and also his outer world.
For a third, his language was wonderfully, endlessly, lyrical. Just like mine was becoming, but slicker and faster and richer. The last thing I wanted right then was to read more of that, and from an author who had long ago written what I thought was the sort of book I was writing.
Now that I have finished Bright Lights, and have published Bongs, I feel as though I had assumed a lot about McInerney’s accomplishment. The accomplishment is not small. The author’s sustaining of that second-person tone with its witty and allusive style and allegro tempo is a wonder in itself. And the story is neatly and yet unconventionally structured, beginning with recent escapades and travails, flashing back to what had brought the travails, stepping forward again to the unhappy consequences of the escapades, flashing back to the grief that may have informed the escapades, and then returning to the miserable depths of the present and a hint that a ladder might be within reach.
For a druggy book there is a satisfying amount of implicit psychology, and the scale of the story is neatly contained: everything in its present happens in just a few days, and to just a few people.
One thing that surprised me was its relying on autobiography – and how little this matters. Perhaps it intrudes in the protagonist’s undervaluing of his many gifts. Disrupted schooling may have left him diffident, but the reported behaviour of his associates testifies to his good looks, good breeding, superior brainpower, literary talent, and charm. You – the narrator is never named except by nickname – take all this for granted; you see yourself as nothing special, even though you know yourself to be very special indeed. There is an opportunity for irony to be attached to this cognitive dissonance, and McInerney might have made more of it if he had been writing about someone more distant.
A very naughty boy
The other thing that surprised me was that for a druggy book, Bright Lights is not very druggy. Nor is it very supportive of recreational drug-taking, and even if we include alcohol in our reading of drug.
The narrator – Coach as he is referred to on occasion by his chief partner in substance abuse – knows himself to be a very, very naughty boy. When he is sacked from his job at a big magazine – transparently The New Yorker, which had ejected McInerney – he believes he deserves to be sacked. His compulsive snorting of coke has led to his living the high life in a way that is not compatible with his flourishing.
Intoxication has allowed him to act more precipitately – he can approach women in clubs whom sober he might merely have stared at – but its spoonfuls of confidence have not brought him things good and lasting.
Whether this is just what cocaine is like, or just what McInerney thought, or just what McInerney and his editor thought the reading public would want to read, I don’t know. But it distinguishes Bright Lights sharply from Bongs. Bongs in no way repudiates what goes down in its dimly lit, small-city living rooms, and its characters never regret time spent sharing a smoke. The story does not shrink from depicting marijuana as perilous, but its perils are most consequentially the perils of uncensored speech.
The many sessions recreated by the isolated first-person narrator of Bongs have been fun for him not only briefly. They resonate for him decades later as representing the warmest and most authentic of his social experiences.
Relevant comparisons of coke highs with dope highs are welcome in comments.