Curtain Up on McInerney Novel

McInerney Roman fine but where’s a clef?

[Editor's note: This article was first published in the March 9, 1992 issue of the New York Observer]

Hitchens hadn’t even finished reading Brightness Falls—it was late afternoon and he was de-icing the silver cocktail shaker preparatory to some old-fashioned, feet-up literary immersion—when his telephone trilled its urgent summons. A brisk voice inquired in a friendly but more than just inquisitive tone what precisely he meant by “profiling” Jay McInerney and what, in any case, he meant by reviewing a novel before its official publication date. This was Hitchens’ first ever call from Gary Fisketjon—he knew of people who had waited in vain for such a call from such a one—and the emotions of flattery and curiosity contended for mastery in his finely but oddly chiseled features. Cupping the mouthpiece, he whispered to the languid presence of Carol Azul, the exquisite screen-writer and Angeleña tour guide who had recently enhanced his happiness and undergirded his waning bicoastal appeal by consenting to become his bride, “Angel, it’s Fisketjon.” “Sometimes, pussy,” she purred, “you do say the strangest things. And don’t get me wrong, but isn’t it the teensiest bit early for that martini?”

Girls, of course, often didn’t understand. Ruled as they were by tides and zodiacs, they found the filiations of power and influence and networking to be obscure and even tedious. (They also failed to see the fuel-bearing character and possibility of gin and vermouth.) This was going to be man’s work. Stalling the power call from Manhattan—Fisketjon cared so little for the nation’s capital that he had allowed McInerney to describe the New York-Washington shuttle as operating from Dulles airport instead of National: a typical piece of Empire State solipsism—Hitchens dialed Julian Barnes in his London snooker speakeasy. The trans-Atlantic static gave place to the gruff, authoritative tones which had, to the wonder of many, infused the playful lightness of Flaubert’s Parrot. “Call me collect one more time, Hitch,” he quipped, “and I’ll break your arm.”

“Listen, Jules, I need a soundbite. Your mate McInerny seems to have a lot of protection. His Roman is very good, but it’s not as much à clef as I’d been told. Please advise.”

“The thing to notice,” said Barnes, “is that Jay’s literary development is completely disconnected from his social curve. I think the real curve—the writing curve—goes steadily upward. Whereas in terms of the literary-social melodrama, he’s seen as someone with a terrific early success who then wrote two dogs.”

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Abandoning his drink-sodden attempt at a pastiche, Hitchens decided to give the thing a straight review. “Early success,” of course, puts one in mind of Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote a haunting passage by that name in which he said that those who had experienced it were touched by a unique grace, and would never quite lose the idea that somewhere there was “a great carnival by the sea.” Mr. McInerney’s critical interest in Fitzgerald is now quite highly developed, and his new novel revolves around a doomed Scott and Zelda pair who strive for different kinds of happiness during the pseudo-gilded age that was the moral squalor of the Reagan era.