Saturday, December 22, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #356: Story of My Life by Jay McInerney

Some books wear their influences really obviously. So any reviewer has to say the obvious first, just to get it out of the way.

I'm still, in my own mind, in the middle of a reading project to hit all of the classic '80s Vintage Contemporaries. (The original plan was to read them at more-or-less the time of publication, thirty years later, but that foundered on a rock called A Fan's Notes.) So I keep trying to hit those books regularly, and I thought Jay McInerney's third novel, 1988's Story of My Life, would be a quick little read, and I'd finally have a chance to read something by him that wasn't Bright Lights, Big City.

What I didn't realize was just how much Story of My Life owes to Catcher in the Rye. Oh, sure, Alison Poole is four or five years older in 1988 than Holden Caulfield was in 1951, and she definitely does more cocaine and has more sex than he did. (Plus the whole "being female" thing.) But the voice of Story is hugely influenced by Catcher, down to the occasional telling word choice like "phonies" on the first few pages. It also, I assume, was McInerney's attempt to do another book like Bright Lights -- cocaine- and voice-fueled, set in go-go '80s NYC, about spoiled youth going rotten -- after what seems to have been the misstep of his second novel Ransom.

Like Holden and the unnamed narrator of Bright Lights, Alison is hugely spoiled, vastly less self-reflective than she appears to be, adrift in her modern world, and telling us her story with an in-your-face voice. (Alison is in the first person, moving her closer to Holden than the "you" of Bright Lights.) She's a rich-girl college dropout, living on her rich semi-estranged father's dime in an expensive apartment while she takes acting classes but spends most of her time partying with friends and dating a succession of what seem like mostly older men (early thirties) in finance and similar high-paying fields. It is very obviously the kind of life that can't be sustained: Alison complains regularly about how far gone this or that friend is, and we readers are supposed to take that as an indication of how far gone she is, despite her protestations.

Story covers a few months in her whirlwind life, up to her twenty-first birthday and just after. She meets a new guy, Dean, who she seems to like despite her protestations that she doesn't fall in love and inevitably loses interest in a man after a few weeks. She runs around the clubs with her roommate Jeannie, crazy friends Didi and Francesca, and visiting even-wilder-older-sister Rebecca. She goes to her classes most of the time. She complains about her father not sending her allowance, and the resultant money troubles. (Of course, Alison doesn't pay for anything -- not cocaine, not her meals, not her apartment, nothing. That's what rich men are for.)

It is all told through Alison's voice, which is loud, profane, demanding, and endlessly self-centered -- it's a good thing Story is a short novel, because 188 pages is more than enough time to spend this close to Alison Poole. All of the dialogue is reported through that voice: everything in Story is filtered through Alison's monstrously massive self-regard, and she has to be treated as a very unreliable narrator because of that.

I'd class Story as an interesting novel but not a good one: parallel to Bright Lights and offering another view of that Rat Pack '80s millieu, a male writer's attempt to do a modern woman's voice (and not, to my mind, entirely succeeding), a book with a lot of ambitions and chops but also a lot of mess and overreach.

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