Mcinerney: From `Bright Lights' To New Outlook

Jay McInerney checks first on a health club where he can work out later in the afternoon. Then for lunch, it's spinach salad and the grilled tuna. Iced tea.

The times, they are a-changin'.

"Between the time `Bright Lights, Big City' came out and `Story of My Life,' I lived in an absolute bubble of publicity," McInerney said yesterday, pausing between bites. "I was . . . was kind of derailed for a while."

He grew quietly confessional. A writer whose life from 1984 to '88, as portrayed in magazines and tabloids, seemed to be one long, alcohol- and cocaine-fueled swagger through the trendiest in-spots of Manhattan nightlife, McInerney acknowledges there was truth in some of those stories.

"I never expected anything like that to happen, and when it did, I found myself sort of trapped in this cage, this image that I had participated in building for myself," said the writer, who is now 37.

"Bright Lights," his first novel, was a huge, unexpected success - a million or so copies are in print, and though the Michael J. Fox movie version was a bomb, the book still sells about 30,000 copies a year. However, McInerney's second novel, "Ransom," seemed to sink without a trace, and by the end of 1988, after critics and readers alike rejected "Story of My Life," the story of Jay McInerney's life had grown correspondingly bleak.

He was living with Marla Hanson, the young woman whose modeling career had tragically ended when her face was slashed in a street attack. His estranged wife had attempted suicide and spent a number of months in a mental-health hospital. And, during the summer of '88, his mentor and good friend, the writer Raymond Carver, died of lung cancer.

McInerney was not taking it well.

"I ended up almost being the Jay McInerney that everyone thought I was supposed to be," he admitted. "It wasn't good for me, for my friends, or my work."

It was his work that saved him. In early 1989 he holed up in New England and began a novel that should put him back in the good graces of both critics and readers. After three years, he had a sprawling, 740-page first draft polished into a lively 416 pages; "Brightness Falls" (Knopf, $23) was officially released Monday, but it already has gone into a fourth printing.

Set in 1987, both before and after the October stock-market crash, the novel centers on Russell and Corrine Calloway, a young (31) married couple carving out lives in the supercharged Manhattan atmosphere of leveraged buyouts, corporate takeovers and insider wheeling-and-dealing.

Theirs, however, isn't the world of the Wall Street bond market captured so memorably in Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities." Rather, Russell is a rising editor at Corbin, Dern, a publishing house of high repute (and not unlike McInerney's own publisher). And though Corrine is a stockbroker, she knows that "in her actual heart she was someone entirely different. A lover and a student of life." She also has a social conscience, volunteering at a soup kitchen for the homeless.

Their lives of bright promise begin coming unglued when Russell falls out of favor with his boss, the venerable literary titan, Harold Stone. In his desperation, he listens to a siren call issued by one Victor Propp, a legendary author whose career has been based on speculation about his long-awaited masterpiece: " `Why don't you buy the company?'," oozes Victor, who has his own agenda in mind. " `Look around you, Russell. All you need is ambition, imagination and leverage.' "

Russell also needs Trina Cox, an old college friend making a killing in M&A (mergers and acquisitions), and Bernard Melman, a diminutive, loathsome takeover specialist who will almost certainly be played by Danny DeVito if the book is ever made into a movie.

"Brightness Falls" nimbly skitters between satire and sadness. Even though McInerney impales all the proper targets, it soon becomes clear that lampooning the Age of Reagan is not his main concern. The aching subtext is his portrait of a marriage in crisis: Corrine's growing discomfort with the takeover plan and Russell's growing absorption in business - and in Trina Cox.

"From the start, I wanted to weld two things: the domestic novel and the social novel. As much as possible, I wanted to view the city in the '80s through the lens of Russell and Corrine's marriage," explained McInerney, who surprised even his closest friends last December by marrying Helen Bransford, a jewelry designer six years his senior.

" `Brightness Falls' is both a beginning and ending," he said. "It's the start of a new phase of my writing - and an epitaph to the world I started writing about at the beginning of my career."