by Ginia Bellafante)
For this installment of the Big City Book Club, we outsourced the choice of a book to Gary Shteyngart, whose own newly published memoir, “Little Failure,” has been a New York Times best-seller. He selected Jay McInerney’s touchstone novel of ’80s Manhattan, “Bright Lights, Big City.”
Mr. Shteyngart will be joining the online discussion with Ginia Bellafante today at 6:30 p.m. on City Room. To kick off the discussion, here is Ginia’s first question for him — and you:
Gary, first thank you so much for participating and thank you for selecting a book, with a peg! It’s been 30 years since the publication of Jay McInerney’s “Bright Lights, Big City,” 30 years since telexes, Danceteria, page proofs striking fear and agon into the hearts of magazine fact-checkers, Bolivian marching powder blanketing Manhattan (Manhattan, itself such an anachronism!).
My first and very obvious question is: What of this New York, the New York of the early Reagan-era ’80s do we miss? I want to say that I miss the anarchic partying the book so famously describes, that I hate a world where the evening begins and ends with dinner, but I didn’t engage in that culture in the ’80s and ’90s and I really like dinner.
I came of age as a journalist and writer when fact-checking was still a standard path to a career in publishing and I worked for a while at a big magazine correcting the errors of self-serious writers whose talents rarely matched their arrogance. The novel’s depiction of fact-checking life — the insane stress of having to call some foreign minister’s office to make sure he really did eat bouillabaisse for lunch on Thursday, worrying that you may never get the answer in time for deadline — is just impeccable. Twenty-four-year-old fact-checkers used to be all over New York. Now they go from the Ivy League to recapping “Sister Wives” for Buzzfeed. Something has been lost.
“Bright Lights, Big City” is a much more moving and even soulful book than I remember, and more originally funny and less reference-heavy than I’d had it in my recollection. I kept hearing the melancholic soundtrack to the movie “Shampoo” in my head at various points when I was reading it. Both that movie and the book revolve around men whose particular proclivities are defined by their cultural moments. They’re both addicts of one kind or another who long for women who find money hotter than sex. But maybe the sadness one feels — or I feel — is that both stories unfold at the dawn of historic Republican presidencies.
Mr. Shteyngart responds:
Hi Ginia! Now I’m hearing that darned “Shampoo” soundtrack in my head, along with “Crockett’s Theme” from “Miami Vice.” Make it stop!
It’s insane to think that 30 years have passed since “Bright Lights, Big City” hit the bookstores (remember a Manhattan dotted with bookstores?). And I agree with you completely on its soulfulness, its insistent undercurrent of family and love. Despite its size, this is not a slight book by any means. And the language holds up over time. McInerney’s wit is searing and fun. “You are a republic of voices tonight. Unfortunately, that republic is Italy.” Those are two sentences my teenaged brain must have surely stumbled over, but those are the kind of sentences that made me reconsider the English language, that made me think like the kind of writer I wanted to become.
I read “Bright Lights” at some point during my hazy days of high school. I went to Stuy from 1987 to 1991, where the drug of choice wasn’t Bolivian marching powder but ambition injected straight into the vein. I came from far eastern Queens (Little Neck) and late ’80s Manhattan was a pure shock to the system. Which is to say, I wanted every bit of it. And McInerney seemed to have what I wanted on every page. “You see yourself as the kind of guy who wakes up early on Sunday morning and steps out to cop the Times and croissants.” Believe me, as a 1987 Little Necker, I had no idea what croissants were and only an abstract idea of The Times. (Newsday was the authoritative paper in our Neck of the woods.) And yet two years later I was floating past the Odeon “with its good light and clean luncheonette-via-Cartier deco décor,” unsure of what that description meant, but knowing that I had to learn.
What do I miss the most about Manhattan? I miss a guy trying to sell me a ferret on “the corner of Walk and Don’t Walk,” as happens to the narrator of “Bright Lights.” Which is not to say that someone actually tried to sell me a street rodent in the ’80s. Merely that it might have happened. Manhattan was an endless series of completely unexpected interactions, of run-ins with hucksters and weirdos one couldn’t help but admire. I’m not talking about the studied weirdos on today’s L train, but a genuine mix of pathology and creativity, which is what New York felt like as a whole. Nowadays what’s going to happen to you? A Citi Bike might run over your foot on the way to the Equinox and then you’ll tweet about it pretty hard. I think I’ll take the ferret.