Holden Caulfield’s progeny are everywhere in American fiction—the smart-ass naif doing a tour of duty in the wrong place with a bad crowd, the misfit born on the inside yet an outsider by temperament, AWOL, at least for a while, from school, family, job, class, himself. Poor Holden, Steven, Marcus once said, was not so much a modern Huck Finn as “a kind of midget Childe Harold.” For his heirs, the children of the blank generation, self-absorption and alienation are so common that they must work overtime at losing in order to be noticed. Not much these days can make parents or society bat an eye. Of course Junior is a mess. If the sensitive washout has no taste for extreme gestures, total self-destruction, then his hope for singularity rests in his voice. Tone is everything.
It is almost a rite of passage, this wandering into the underside of life, replacing the campus as the setting of discovery and initiation. The young no longer have their lost weekend in the city. The city, as the theater of experience, the refuge, the hiding place, has in turn been replaced by an abstraction, the fast lane. In the fast lane the passive observer reduces everything—streets, people, rock lyrics, headlines—to landscape. Every night holds magical promises of renewal. But burnout is inevitable, like some law of physics. The hand—or drug—that raises the loser up will abandon him in mid-flight and he will crash.
The nameless loser in Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City is going to the dogs like a gentleman. He is too smart to blame anyone for the impasse he has come to, hip enough to know he does not know enough, too sophisticated to masquerade as an anti-hero. The story of this young man’s decline and fall is told entirely in the second person, which gives him some distance from his own nonsense and adds much to the comic anatomy-of-a-loser tone. This cautionary tale is engagingly modest, funny, perfectly balanced.
The narrator—a fellow traveler in the fast lane calls him “Coach”—simply does not have his act together. The threads of it will, of course, unravel further, and a blundering helplessness defines his every move. Not even his trusty grams are much of a consolation.
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head…. Somewhere back there you could have cut your losses, but you rode past that moment on a comet trail of white powder and now you are trying to hang on to the rush…. Your presence here is only a matter of conducting an experiment in limits, reminding yourself of what you aren’t.
Coach sees himself as the sort who wakes early Sunday morning to croissants and the Times, plays tennis,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.