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 The city, as the theater of experience, the refuge, the hiding place, has in turn been replaced by an abstraction, the fast lane.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, takes in exhibits, has dinner with a woman he met at a party where he did not get pissed—but then again he doesn’t. Perhaps he was once on that track, a happy consumer, but that life is, already, in the first chapter, “It’s Six A.M. Do You Know Where You Are?,” either a memory, like his money, or a fantasy fueled by “Bolivian Marching Powder.”
Cocaine is escape, gives him a sense of power, inspires his revisionist flights, and has use-value in the club marketplace, “the sexual equivalent of fast food,” where girls let themselves be chatted up in exchange for a line or two. ” ‘You got some blow?’ she says. ‘Is Stevie Wonder blind?’ you say.” Coke is also a testing ground of cause and effect. It has its own logic, like the workings of an engine’s piston: intake, combustion, power, exhaust. “You know there is a special purgatory waiting for you out there in the dawn’s surly light, a desperate half sleep which is like a grease fire in the brainpan.” Every sour morning holds the risk of ego disintegration. “Here you are again. All messed up and no place to go.”
When the high is gone his nerve ends are exposed—to the sensationalism of tabloids, the “city’s MIAs,” the subways “enervated by graffiti,” the sad photographs of a missing person, the posters that strangle lampposts like kudzu, the hawkers in front of sex shops. He is self-conscious as an infiltrator or a hostage. When Coach is not using his “lowlife visa,” he is going down the tubes at work. “There is a shabby nobility in failing all by yourself.” It is not just any job. He works at a distinguished magazine, whose offices are in Times Square, in “The Department of Factual Verification.” The rarefied atmosphere of the magazine is a humorous contrast to his anarchic comings and goings. Work fills the narrator with a dread similar to that of his school days when he hadn’t finished his homework.
Your boss, Clara Tillinghast, somewhat resembles a fourth-grade tyrant, one of those ageless disciplinarians who believes that little boys are evil and little girls frivolous, that an idle mind is the devil’s playground and that learning is the pounding of facts, like so many nails, into the knotty oak of recalcitrant heads…. If the Clinger had her way you would have been expelled long ago, but the magazine has a tradition of never acknowledging its mistakes. The folk history of the place has it that no one has ever been fired…. It’s a lot like the Ivy League…people here speak as if they were weaned on Twinings…. A shoeshine or an overly insistent trouser press is suspect.
Mrs. Tillinghast is hung over as often as the narrator is wired, and she is not alone. Coach gets glassy-eyed advice from a “fiction writer emeritus, a relic from the early days” who goes on about Papa and Fitzgerald and Faulkner. Even with the secret drinking it is a place of daunting tradition and reserve. Meeting a poetry editor in the john involves peculiar observances of etiquette; the faithful archivist has never gotten over the first appearance in the magazine of a four-letter word. The staff writers hiding in their cubbyholes are an odd lot. One, “the Ghost,” has been at work on the same story seven years. Presiding over it all is “the Druid.” His manners are legendary and his reticence
has been elevated to a principle. Fourth in a dynastic succession, he has run the show for twenty years. Trying to discover what he is thinking is the preoccupation of the entire staff. Nothing passes into the magazine without his enthusiastic approval and his own final edit. There is no arbitration and no explanation…. Perhaps because he suspects he is mortal, fiction that deals too directly with death is unwelcome here; most references to myopia are edited out. No detail is too minute for his attention.
The narrator’s only contact with him is a phone call during which the Druid expresses his worry about
the English usage of the President of the United States. You were checking a piece in which the President warned against precipitous action. The Druid felt that precipitate was the word the President was looking for. He asked you to call the White House to get approval for the change…. You spent several hours on hold.
Beware the office boy’s revenge.
Coach has always wanted to be a writer. Humble position at the magazine he imagined was the first step toward fame. He dreamed of instant stardom and thought, like every kid, that he could write better than those who had given their lives to it. He got polite rejection notes from the fiction department: ” ‘Not quite right for us now, but thanks for letting us see this.’ You would try to interpret the notes: what about the word now.” But he knows that he gets buzzed too often for the labor of composition, is too much of a basket case for reflection. Concentration is part of his fantasy of the together act. “A random sampling of titles induces vertigo: As I Lay Dying, Under the Volcano…. You must have had an ambitious youth. Of course, many of these spines have never been cracked.”
Coach, at least, can make fun of himself. These days a serious-minded heroine is likely to be upstairs studying Greek and Latin, a shy young hero in his closet brooding over Rimbaud. We have come a long way from Holden’s confession that he wouldn’t mind calling up Ring Lardner or old Thomas Hardy. But Coach has an ironic attitude toward his pretensions, even when he thinks of screwing up at work as a chapter in his biography: “Youthful Folly” after “Early Promise.”
His co-workers in the “kingdom of facts” are drawn with much sympathy and affection. He tries to be worthy of their concern, to honor their camaraderie and efficiency, but the downward pull in him is too strong. “You have not followed procedure,” he tells himself. “You have used pen where you should have used pencil, red pencil where you should have used blue.” He is obsessed with his “otherness,” his paralysis. The worst realization of youth is that one is alone in thinking one deserves something better. For him, American, middle-class, not much can happen. Even the fast lane is a routine, with its imprisoning patterns. There are simply hours in the office and hours not in the office. McInerney moves skillfully from one to the other, with many amusing observations.
Not much can happen, though falling apart is a kind of act, an assertion of choice or character. Coach’s mentor in the fast lane is Tad Allagash. Coach envies him for his ability to find drugs and girls, to get into hip mischief and yet hold down a job, to do what he pleases without fatigue or remorse. Tad’s narcissism puts one in mind of David Westlake in Carl Van Vechten’s Parties (1930). In the old days thrills were purchased in Harlem. But Tad leads his charge to Studio 54 or downtown to the Mudd Club, places Coach finds disappointing and repetitive but he craves the impersonal surroundings as much as he does a toot. “Your soul is as disheveled as your apartment and until you can clean it up a little you don’t want to invite anyone inside.”
Coach is not falling apart for nothing; his demons are gradually revealed. His wife, Amanda, has left him. A wheat-fed, milk-pretty ingénue from Kansas, Amanda saw Coach as her way out of the trailer park to the bright lights of the big city. She was in awe of his education, loved the idyll of his Connecticut family. But she made too much money modeling and Europe offered her more than he ever could. His apartment is haunted by items from her makeup kits. Amanda is the symbol of his misspent youth, of his loss of faith in glossy, technicolor dreams. He moons over a mannequin in a shop window that was modeled after her face, attempts to disrupt a fashion show in which she is scheduled to make an appearance.
The anniversary of his mother’s death from cancer is approaching and his inability to come to terms with the loss is the reason he hides from friends, from his father and brother. “You never had to exert yourself for anything,” his brother says. “School, girls, awards, fancy jobs—it all just falls in your lap.” But by the time his brother has tracked him down Coach has lost everything—his job, his MG. Even the cash dispenser he goes to doesn’t work.
Surviving the fast lane depends upon recognizing that even a star is just another clown of God when he or she finally staggers home. “You will have to go slowly. You will have to learn everything all over again.” He will, we’re sure, having met the right kind of girl, one from Princeton who is not ashamed to wait for him in a restaurant with a copy of Spinoza in her hands. In a culture where the condition of youth is prolonged the only chance that matters is the last one.
The fast lane is much more dangerous in Nettie Jones’s Fish Tales. The stakes are higher, the rules more brutal. An evicted roommate is likely to have her ex-friends burglarized. Jones’s characters are not arty Knickerbocker Gray alumni out for a ration of slumming. They have a felonious air about them and live by a series of mean improvisations. Hers are more likely to prey on the preps, the fast lane being a place of mobility (up or down) in which the classes collide. That the narrator of Fish Tales, Lewis, is a woman means that she will gain the upward track through fortuitous alliances and that its privileges—“Freedom to travel, to dissipate, to sleep late, to leave bills behind”—will be bargained for with her body.
There are no victims, only volunteers, and Lewis’s name is high on the list. The story of her crackup in the fast lane is one of masochism, exhibitionism, lies, power plays, and violence. Lewis is, we assume, black (although a friend makes a reference to her blue eyes). One of the remarkable aspects of this novel is that race doesn’t matter. There is no sociology; even with descriptions of reddish hair on legs, curly heads, and broad noses it is hard to tell who has rhythm and who hasn’t. In addition to the racial blurring a sort of transvestism surrounds the characters. Nicknames and wardrobes are not reliable clues; who’s what isn’t clear until the drawers drop—and they do. No one goes to the movies. Coach can’t get laid but Lewis and her friends can’t not. “Orgyettes,” she calls their parties.
The novel alternates in brief, intense scenes between Detroit, Lewis’s home town, and Manhattan. They seem identical; the high-tech lofts and crowded bars of both cities are interchangeable. (Lewis frequents one of the overrated haunts that Coach favors.) Lewis’s Motor City has no auto plants, though someone spends “Cadillac money” fixing his teeth. If the characters work or have professions—Lewis jumps into an open marriage with a well-heeled, laid-back allergist—then, like Coach and his crowd, these jobs are viewed as holding patterns or scams. Real life begins when that evening sun goes down. Coach has a background—suburbs, schools—whereas Lewis has a past and it is difficult to say if the distinction is owing to class or to sex.
Lewis is offhand and witty about grim incidents. Her lucidity is itself a kind of imbalance. Sometimes it is unclear who she is addressing—an old friend, a phantom, her vagina?—yet she speaks with the authority of someone who has been there. For a woman who has been around, she is uneasy with her body, with her large feet. “I frantically unrolled some toilet tissue and wedged it between my legs. No blood, just that snot.” She recoils from the bodies of men as well. “I was pretending not to know how to French kiss. See, Jason’s teeth were not only yellow. The ones left were decayed, too; little black ant-size specks sat on his front ones.”
Lewis had an abortion as a teen-ager. ” ‘How’d she do it?’ he asked. ‘With a hanger,’ I whispered back.” A teacher seduced her when she was twelve and their stormy affair lasted twenty years. If men have taught Lewis the lessons of violation, then women provide the images of revenge. She recalls one woman from her childhood who, naked on the street, spat in her husband’s face; another who pulled an ice pick on a young thug: “Men don’t expect that from women.” Lewis has made her share of assaults on men. A current of impotent rage runs through her narration. But Lewis hasn’t the anger of popular feminism. Nettie Jones is too shrewd for that. Lewis has the determination of the self-destructive person who cannot make her point unless she brings someone down with her.
Women, as friends or chance erotic encounters, are a comfort to Lewis, but she is capable of deep feelings for men. Many of her pals in the fast lane are men, most of whom are switch-hitters, which makes them allies. One in particular, Kitty-Kat (nee Kurt), is a constant in her whirlpool. Kitty is a type that has become a fixture in contemporary fiction about the fast lane: the veteran of virtually every conceivable high. These veterans have an adversarial idea of the outside world, a reflection of their position of disadvantage, like the old queen in Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance (1978) or the black girl in David Planet’s recent The Foreigner. They are present in these novels to monitor the innocent’s fall, to be sentries of the revolving door. They tend to be ambiguous, shoving the novice toward Faustian error one moment, protective and sacrificial the next.
Cocaine, opium, marijuana, uppers, amyl nitrate, Valium, champagne—Lewis and her playmates have these toys in such quantity that sex is overshadowed, a lesser high, merely an obligation or ritual of the sporting life. People are appraised like the jewelry and furnishings and clothes to which Lewis pays much attention. Taste is the great divider. Lewis has been trained by the style police, and is very hard on those who can’t get it right.
Lewis stomps through various affairs, races between Detroit and Manhattan. Her husband’s apartment is the equivalent of the hideout in gangster movies. After she has had enough she sets fire to her apartment—with herself in it. She survives and makes an effort to “connect.” The true perversity comes in her connection with Brook, an upper-class quadriplegic. It is not so much that Lewis needs to be needed; it’s a matter of her wanting to manipulate those who have no wish to be controlled. For all his helplessness, Brook is fiercely independent and no amateur at ruling others. “I am in love,” Lewis says. “He’s the first man I met who I feel is superior to me.”
Lewis’s love affair with the paralyzed Brook is cruel, pornographic. Brook writhing in his wheelchair, getting mustard on his beard, watching her get off with a Japanese vibrator, accidents with the tube that extends into his boot—Lewis has an appetite for scatological detail. What is more disturbing is her slavery, her puppy-dog bondage. Lewis imposes conventional dreams of eternal love, a baby, a picnic in the park, a snowy afternoon of intimacy on this doomed connection. Anxious cheerfulness turns into poisonous jealousy. Yet she pimps for Brook. “Cause bad girls are free.” And Lewis herself is free to get blind drunk, drape black stockings over Brook’s head, and stab him in the neck with a pair of scissors. “Fuck his mind.”
One wonders why Jones takes this work to such a repulsive end. The murder is unprepared for in Lewis’s character, even in her frustrating love of Brook. Perhaps the rush of pornography and Lewis’s desperation had to go somewhere—in a few pages Jones manages to undo the whole book. Lewis’s outbursts against men, until Brook, have been controlled by her self-knowledge, a relish of the symbolic value in her lame attacks, her comic aggressiveness. That her drunken, barbituated vengefulness is acted out on a man incapable of defending himself suggests that Nettie Jones has lost sight of her character and what she seems to be saying about the murky line separating victim and tormentor.
Both Jones’s and McInerney’s novels have the atmosphere of period pieces. Jones writes of the middle Seventies, when disco belonged to the chosen. McInerney writes of the early Eighties, when the clubs he names were out of fashion to the party goers who made them. That they seem of their periods demonstrates how time has accelerated, or how changes in style can make for distances. The loser of the Eighties, however, is faking it. He can become a winner in the nick of time. Holden’s line may suddenly die out. Coincidental with the elevation of the fast lane is the loss of the city as a subject. The fast lane is a small town, very much in accord with the regionalism publishers have become so fond of. The new generation, apparently, is further away from, say, Manhattan Transfer in more ways than just time.
November 8, 1984