Babylon Re-Revisited

The Last of the Savages

by Jay McInerney
Knopf, 271 pp., $24.00

The 1980s in America were not unlike the 1920s, as almost everyone noticed. Costly foreign military adventures had wound down, postwar slumps had turned to booms, friends of business in both parties had power in Washington, the demand for illegal substances was enriching the criminal classes even as the rewards of high finance were making criminals of certain of the rich. And the young, it seemed, were running wild to the corrupting beat of music their elders couldn’t see the point of. In both decades the age demanded a new literature commensurate with its power to excite and offend, and as usual the literature business stood ready to oblige.

It is very hard to think of a novelist like Jay McInerney without also thinking of Scott Fitzgerald (about whom McInerney wrote admiringly in these pages ). McInerney’s latest book, The Last of the Savages, is told by a young Irish American of middle-class provincial antecedents, with (for a time) literary aspirations, who pursues his dream of moving on up in ivied eastern schools and colleges and plush settings of the rich at play, though he eventually finds his vocation not in letters but the law.

Yet the Eighties also were different from the Twenties, not least in the narrowing of the audience for serious fiction. My copies of This Side of Paradise, Tales of the Jazz Age, and The Beautiful and Damned were bought by my parents in (the fly-leaves say) the year of their marriage, 1923. They were young, intelligent, good-looking, college-educated outlanders like Fitzgerald himself; but their college was small, midwestern, and denominational; they came from sober, middle-class, Methodist families, and they were then living in a tiny Ohio hamlet without easy access to bookstores, bootleggers, or other urban amenities. It seems hard to imagine people of their circumstances in the 1980s reading or even hearing about the books that made young writers like McInerney such good copy for the glossy magazines in the Reagan years.

But if McInerney was at first more a cultural phenomenon, or symptom, than a literary one, his books are worth attention. The earlier ones provide sensational, dire impressions of what it was like, for some, to be young, privileged, and American in their time. The unnamed hero of Bright Lights, Big City (1984) is a twenty-four-year-old fact-checker for a magazine modeled after The New Yorker who idly dreams of being a writer but can’t make himself actually write anything; his life centers on celebrity saloons and downtown clubs, where he nearly kills himself on cocaine, drink, sex, and general depression. In Ransom (1985, though perhaps written earlier), another young man, after college and a stay among the smugglers and junkies of northwest Pakistan, comes to Japan to seek moral clarity and discipline through karate but finds only violent death. In Story of My Life (1988) Alison Poole, an acting student in New York, is at twenty-one beset by drugs, parental neglect, faithless lovers, and lying friends; she ends up in …

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Letters

Professional Mystery? September 19, 1996