Arts & Entertainment: Sunday, December 6, 1998

“Model Behavior” by Jay McInerney

By Mark Lindquist
Special to The Seattle Times

In the late ’70s and early ’80s we called it “punk” when an artist said never mind the critics or, for that matter, the general public. “Bright Lights, Big City,” Jay McInerney’s first novel, was punk.

The odds would have been against its publication if not for McInerney’s friendship with editor Gary Fisketjon, who happened to dream up a line of paperback originals called “Vintage Contemporaries.”

After spending the latter half of the 15 years since “Bright Lights” straining for literary respectability, McInerney has slipped back on his red shoes for “Model Behavior,” his fifth novel. He has gleefully and shamelessly rewritten “Bright Lights” for the 1990s. Restaurants replace clubs as social focal points, celebrities replace cocaine as the metaphorical evil, and surrender replaces redemption as the semi-sunny ending, but the one-line synopsis is the same: beautiful model dumps young writer and sends him into a tailspin that forces him to search for a moral compass.

The lead character in “Model Behavior,” Conner McKnight, is a celebrity journalist burdened with just the right mix of self-satisfaction and self-loathing. The plot, such as it is, revolves around McKnight’s pursuit of an interview with a young actor.

McInerney uses the first person when he wants to write lazily, switches into the second or third person when he wants to remind the reader he can write astoundingly well, and maintains a sneering energy throughout.

This is the literary equivalent of three-chord rock and roll, and I liked it. Voice, McInerney’s strong suit, drives the book more than the occassionally absurd story line. He writes of “toxic body consciousness,” and “carping the diem,” and “too little rapture of late.” He pulls chapter titles from R.E.M. lyrics, references obscure pop songs from the 1980s, and mistakenly refers to Sean MacPherson’s defunct Los Angeles restaurant The Olive as “a club in West Hollywood” just to see if anyone is paying attention. He has fun.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, who by law must be mentioned in any review of McInerney, felt that writers have one or two truly powerful experiences in their lives and that we spend our careers telling the story of the resulting emotion over and over. McInerney’s most powerful experience to date has been, apparently, being dumped by a model. Proof of his skill and artistry is found in the fact that from this personal trifle he has written some of the most relevant literature of our time.

The seven accompanying stories, in contrast, are technically astute and, well, kind of boring. They could be interpreted as gropes for approval after the critical beatings McInerney’s work took in the 1980s. Interestingly, the New York Times Book Review, quite stingy in its recent appraisal of “Model Behavior,” lauds these stories as “models of the form.” Yes, and there is little that distinquishes them from other models of the form. With the exception of “Smoke,” a fascinating outtake from McInerney’s fourth novel, “Brightness Falls,” these stories mostly serve to prove that McInerney can write like his elders, albeit with flair. I was put in mind of Nirvana covering a Perry Como song.

E.M. Forster said that fiction can do what history books cannot: capture the “buzz of implication” of an era. I predict that 40 or 50 years from now, when most of the critics’ current favorites are forgotten, McInerney will be enjoying a posthumous comeback and “Model Behavior” will be a popular computer disk, particularly among college students. McInerney will be read in the future for his humanistic understanding and rendering of the buzz of our era. So why wait? Read him now.

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Mark Lindquist