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 a detox clinic in wintry Minnesota.

Good novels can of course be written about minority cultures like McInerney’s white, expensively educated, fairly affluent young people in their twenties in midtown Manhattan or on the new-style Grand Tour. That most of their contempararies were poorer, and many of them are serious about such matters as careers social justice, politics, the environment, music and TV shows, the welfare of their friends and even relations doesn’t invalidate these portraits of the deracinated, drugged-out, self-destructive remainder. But McInerney’s characters seem generic, and older readers possibly startled by their Babylonian excesses are left free to hope that the author is exaggerating or that he, too, disapproves. At the same time, younger readers can assume that he understands and sympathizes with, if not their worst practices, then at least their fantasies of liberation from work, family, responsibility. These are bring-your-own-irony books, and no offense intended.

Whether they are celebration, satire, or sermon is hard to say. But McInerney’s early books convey certain tones and moods of their period with some force. The demise of “family values” we hear so much about every four years certainly figures in the books, whose characters take scant comfort in their parents, most of them divorced, widowed, manipulative, or indifferent to parental duty. No voice speaks out to question the children’s conviction that their elders are to blame for their personal ills, including their failure to take charge of their lives.

In such circles parents often determine how money is or not deployed, and money also points the books toward part of the truth about the 1980s. That was indeed a prosperous time for those blessed with a head start, but as usual some were more prosperous than others. McInerney’s young bond salesmen, commodity traders, and admen, and the outright drones they go to parties with, can afford drugs, club-hopping, and the right clothes; but the author seems to know that they’re dining on the crumbs from their masters’ tables, that the subordination they so resent is not finally created by their parents but by the economic system they are caught up in. The point is clearest in Ransom, where the hero’s father, a pedestrian playwright grown rich and powerful as a maker of TV movies, is anxious to redeem his dropout son from dubious foreign distractions. He sends various emissaries to Japan, and finally comes himself, to trick or persuade Christopher Ransom (McInerney is partial to allegorical names) into going home to his heritage. The ambivalent connection between financial and generational subordination also figures, if less boldly, in Bright Lights and Story of My Life, as in Alison Poole’s anger that the rich father she so despises doesn’t pay her tuition bills on time.

In these earlier books the main characters, if not fully representative, are at least strongly represented. McInerney seems better at mimicry than at imagining himself into roles as a good actor can, but he “does” people’s voices with skill. The Bright Lights boy speaks in a present-tense, second-person-as-first-person mode—“I sat down” becomes “you sit down” and so on—that nicely suggests the suspicious way in which he keeps watching himself be narcissistic. Alison Poole, a mix of Holly Golightly, Holden Caulfield, and basic Valley Girl, is vocally less original, but she, too, is consistent, funny, and often touching. And Ransom, though told in the third person, keeps close to the damaged, affectless consciousness of Christopher himself.

These books are short and narrow in range, and McInerney has lately been expanding his picture of an America in moral crisis. Brightness Falls (1992) is a too-long, old-fashioned novel, with a larger, less freakish, and almost multicultural cast of characters. The leading couple, Corrine and Russell Calloway, are actually married; though they have little money, she is old-line WASP and a stockbroker, he lace-curtain Irish and in publishing. Their friends include a hip literary black man, a young Jewish movie producer, some environmentalists up in Vermont, and a writer, Jeff Pierce, who has published a successful book of stories, is secretly on heroin, and may be gay. The year is 1987, the homeless are in the streets, and some big-time corporate raiders show up, at Russell’s instigation, to try for a leveraged buyout of the publishers he works for.

This new inclusiveness is potentially interesting, but what gets done with it lies uncomfortably close to soap opera or a Michael Douglas big-business movie. Russell and Corrine are loving, but the ups and downs of their life together are banal. She wants a baby, he resists, she gets pregnant, he finds he’s glad; he has an affair, his first, with a (female) investment banker; Corrine miscarries, becomes bulimic, learns of his infidelity, kicks him out. Their closest friend, Jeff the writer, has to be put in detox; the LBO blows up and Russell, who has borrowed heavily to do some insider trading in his firm’s stock, is ruined and must take a (higher-paying) job in Hollywood, which he for some reason finds a gentler place than Manhattan. Corrine quits the investment business to be a paralegal in the DA’s office; Russell learns that she and Jeff had an affair before she married Russell; Jeff dies, perhaps of AIDS, though not before finishing a novel about them all—“Jeff’s Ivan Illyich,” Russell calls it at the memorial service. Russell and Corrine gingerly reunite, the Crash of ‘87 wipes out the high-leverage guys he had aspired to play with, and the story ends with a rather lame variation on the conclusion of Joyce’s “The Dead,” in which Russell nods off with Corrine asleep beside him, while he muses about death, memory, the empty nest possibly in their future, and the threat of Alzheimer’s before the end.

In short, the effort to give the book historical scope and portent fails. The title’s allusion to Nashe’s great “Litany in Time of Plague,” which Russell carefully explains to Corrine, seems overdone, since its most prominent contemporary reference is not medical or moral but financial. And 1987, unlike 1929, was not, after all, the Apocalypse but just a great buying opportunity. The freedom of the third-person narration may have been too tempting—there’s room in Brightness Falls to say too much too loosely, as in, “He was fleetingly sensitized to the peculiarities of urban life, briefly conscious of the fantastic web of mundane conventions composing this outlandishly complex organism” (i.e., New York City), which no one in the earlier books could have uttered without laughing.

In The Last of the Savages McInerney returns to the first person, but bad writing here becomes unexpectedly writing here becomes unexpectedly endemic. After an opening sentence—“The capacity for friendship is God’s way of apologizing for our families”—that might have pleased Austen or Tolstoy, we soon read that a major character, the free-spirited Will Savage, “seemed like an avatar of the orgy of the eternal present,” which apparently means, if anything, that he loved a good time and showed it. (He puts on some weight as the story advances.) The narrator, Patrick Keane, describes his reaction to a graceless FBI man with a flattop haircut: “Even as I equivocated, trying to divulge as little information about Will as possible, I was plagued with the notion of picking that rotten pea [a large purple mole] from his face, and strafed with images of tiny airplanes taking off and landing on the special agent’s head.” “Equivocated” and “divulge” are ponderous, and “information” is redundant (what else can one have to divulge?). “Plagued” and “strafed” are unfortunate choices, but if they must be there, they surely demand “by” and not “with.” The whimsical riff on the word “flattop” is simply lame.

Some of the ineptitudes of the novel’s prose are just irritating or unintentionally funny, like “flashes of landscape scooped up fleetingly in the cone of the headlights.” Others flirt with disaster. Of Will’s Southern-bred ease among black people, one reads that he “seemed to belong [among them], but not by virtue of aping the behavior of the local populace, nor of a moist heartiness.” At another point we witness a fascinating struggle on the narrator’s part not to utter the low word “accordion,” for which he substitutes periphrases like “monstrous instrument of torture,” “dreadful device,” “spawn of some violent coupling of reptile and pipe organ,” and “respirating instrument” with, presumably, a facetious intent.

The Last of the Savages is told by someone who is both a snob and a lawyer, and the implication may be that his profession and outlook have spoiled his powers of language. But this man reads good books and once wanted to be a poet, and snobs and lawyers often speak as clearly and effectively as anyone else. If McInerney wants to make Patrick sound stuffy, it remains true that good novelists can make even stuffy people sound interesting.

Patrick Keane is a very successful New York corporation lawyer telling, in the 1990s, of his youth and early manhood. He was Class of ‘67 at an elite New England boarding school, which he entered as an Irish Catholic “scholarship student from a…mill town down the road.” His origins are a bit less humble than his terms imply—his large, loud mother with her broad South Boston “a”s may not be a social asset, but she at least has a mink coat, and his quiet father does well for himself as an appliance dealer while Patrick goes on to Yale, Harvard Law, marriage to the daughter of a “patrician” federal judge (the governor of Massachusetts is at the wedding), and a career that might make anyone a little smug.

At prep school Patrick meets and rooms with another of the bold, dominant, male best friends that often appear in McInerney’s stories. The aptly named Will Savage is the scion of an old-rich Memphis family prominent in right-wing circles. His disheveled-preppy style is, even in the mid-Sixties, well on the way to hip-psychedelic; he has read Kerouac, Ginsberg, Hesse, D.T. Suzuki; he scorns the Beatles, preferring the authentic black rhythm-and-blues singers he knows from back home; he’s profane of speech and prone to violence, already into alcohol and grass, a rebel who seems charismatic, if not to his parents and teachers, then at least to some of his buttoned-down peers.

After a near-fatal car accident during summer vacation, Will returns to school for his senior year, saying that he “was dead” and “came back,” and he soon gathers a little band of “disciples” to whom he imparts his wisdom about music, Eastern religions, and the Beats, along with, possibly, some LSD. (“Look what happened to Jesus,” Patrick says to him a little too appropriately during later bad times.) Denied graduation when he takes the rap for Patrick, who brought a girl to their room, and in danger of being drafted for Vietnam, Will slips the faculty some hash brownies and heads for Asia on his own, visiting Japan, Thailand, the Khyber Pass and Ladakh, the Greek Islands, Amsterdam, Rio, and the guerrilla-filled jungles of Ecuador, ingesting local lore and stimulants as he goes.

Patrick, pursuing the main chance in New Haven, wryly calls Will’s Grand Tour “a kind of greatest-hits-of-the-hippie-trail,” but he’s clearly impressed; the reader is supposed to be as well. And Will’s later achievement of celebrity and great wealth as a pop impresario with his own music production company has a Gatsby-like grandeur. But he’s a good Gatsby, even if Patrick can’t quite understand (nor can I) exactly how all his benefactions work, especially the “utopian and profitable” project that involves “giving computers to kids from L.A. street gangs, teaching them to program and make music. Sony was throwing money at him, he said, and he’d convinced them to kick in another million to help keep his free clinic in Mississippi up and running.”

I feel like a fucking cliché,” Will Savage declares in one of the book’s riskier authorial moves. He is indeed a virtual anthology of clichés—hippie hero, Oedipal sufferer, new-age entrepreneur, Lincolnesque emancipator. (He “wanted to liberate us all,” says the admiring Patrick, apparently thinking not just of the black performers he sponsored but of what rock and roll seemed to promise a whole generation.) His life is a neo-Faulknerian agon pitting him against his family’s history and against his imposing father, Cordell, who knew Richard Nixon, may have killed his own father, does grievous damage to his wife and sons (two of them die), and may even, Will claims, have been complicit in the murder of Martin Luther King. Cordell disinherits Will, his only surviving son, for marrying a black woman, disappears, and later surfaces in London as a rich international arms dealer married to the gorgeous but dumb fiancée of one of his dead sons, with whom Will cuckolds him as a moral gesture.

Will the liberator also presides over Patrick’s qualified victory over his own secret self. He gives Patrick his first clear view of the privileged world he so longs to enter, by bringing him home to Tennessee for school vacations. He arranges Patrick’s supposed initiation into (hetero) sexual experience, not knowing (nor do we, then) of his drunken submission, while at Yale, to the importunities of his old prepschool English master. Will introduces Patrick to Lollie Baker, a jaunty, sophisticated Memphis girl who for a time is his lover before he marries, and who evidently owes something to her namesake, Jordan Baker from Louisville, the golfer in Gatsby who also liked careful men.

Patrick’s sex life comes more and more to drive a story that had seemed to have a broader social and historical point. His friendship with Will looked odd from the start to some of their friends, but the enlightened reader at first dismisses this as mere homophobia. For a time he seems just an ambitious, asexual cold fish, or at best a young man who’s shy and awkward with women, drawn mostly to ones who seem safely Will’s, like Lollie and Taleesha Johnson, the blues singer Will marries. Patrick’s own marriage has been less a fulfillment of desire than a career decision. Even accidentally witnessing Will and Taleesha in bed, she on top and he tied up, leads him to reflections that seem too commonplace to say much, least of all about Patrick himself:

To this day I don’t quite know how to interpret this…, but I now understand all too well that you can never predict the geometry of appetite, or know for certain what secret passions may roil within the breast of even your best friend.

But the author is playing games with us—the secret passions Patrick here has in mind, we eventually learn, are not Will’s but his own, and he won’t divulge them even to us until the author is ready. There have been many clues to his homoerotic feelings, but for a long time they seem only theoretical, further demonstrations of his need to feel guilty. When he finally tells us of the encounter with his English teacher, we realize that he had started to describe that evening a hundred pages before; but he stopped the account before it reached the seduction itself, not for his own reasons, I fear, but only so that McInerney can surprise us with it later, as he does with the news that Patrick has had but not mentioned two other homosexual encounters, casual ones at a bookstore and a parkway rest stop. And the concluding revelation, that Patrick has donated the sperm with which Taleesha conceives the child Will is unable to give her, is shamelessly contrived.

Unless they have some believable reason not to do so, first-person narrators really ought to tell us the facts as they come to know them themselves, however they may misunderstand or lie about their meanings. Like the supposition that a pompous character is best shown by making his speech just as pompous as possible, such evidently calculated concealments prevent one from caring much about Patrick Keane or believing in the “freedom” he claims Will Savage has helped him to appreciate. These are not mere technical problems but signs that, for all McInerney’s commendable ambition to take on larger subjects in his last two books, he has not fully imagined and understood the people whose social and historical experience he writes about.


Professional Mystery? September 19, 1996

  1. *

    See his “Fitzgerald Revisited,” The New York Review, August 15, 1991.