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"Here you go again. All messed up and no place to go."

That line sets the tone for "Bright Lights, Big City." Jay McInerney's bestselling debut stands above other urban-angst novels of the time, which tended to go with shock value. Instead, McInerney experimented with second-person narratives and a vision of a fragmented, coke-dusted New York.

"You" are a young man living in New York, and wife Amanda has recently left you for a French photographer she met on a modelling shoot. Understandably you are depressed and unhappy, and the loss of Amanda haunts your moods, especially when her lawyer urges you to sue her for "sexual abandonment," even though you don't want a divorce.

By day, you work in the fact-checking department of a prestigious magazine, where your malignant boss is getting tired of you. By night, you halfheartedly prowl clubs with your pal Tad, doing drugs and meeting women you care nothing for. Will you be able to move past your problems and become happy again?

Consider that summary a little slice of what "Bright Lights, Big City" sounds like -- the reader is the main character, which allows the reader to slip into another's skin for a brief time. Second-person narratives are often annoying, but McInerney's style is so starkly compelling that the little narrative trick pays off.

The New York of "Bright Lights, Big City" is basically a big, glitzy, hollow place, but still strangely appealing. And McInerney adds splinters of reality here and there, like the tattooed girl and Coma Baby, which add to the gritty you-are-there feel of the novel itself. His dark sense of humour comes out in "your" thoughts: "your" boss resembles "one of those ageless disciplinarians who believe that little boys are evil and little girls frivolous, that an idle mind is the devil's playground."

And while many trendy novels of the time relied on shock value and obnoxious characters, McInerney keeps it low-key. The young man is likable and sympathetic, despite his tendency towards self-pity. And the people around him -- the self-absorbed Amanda, likable Tad and nasty "Clingwrap" -- seem surprisingly realistic, as well as the minor people who flit in and out of our hero's vision.

"Bright Lights, Big City" has gained a reputation as a trendy urban novel of the 1980s. Too bad. Though the trendiness has worn off, McInerney's style and story are still worth reading.
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on 20 December 2000
Easily McInerneys best novel (to date) and one of the best satires of 80s culture available. Plot follows our hero as he drinks and drugs around early 80s Manhattan until it all gets a bit too much. Very 80`s and slightly passe now but still if you laughed at American Psycho, understood Bonfire of the Vanities and enjoyed Oliver Stones "Wall Street" then this is pretty much in the same "greed is bad really" vein. Well worth reading. Up there with Martin Amis` "Money" in terms of heavy handed satirical humour with a message (man).
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on 19 January 2010
It's difficult to write about what Bright Lights, Big City is REALLY about without giving away a major plot point, so I won't. But I'm incredulous that no one yet seems to have made the comparison with J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. The protagonist here is essentially an updated, older Holden Caulfield in an updated, older New York. In the same way that Allie's death was really the key to what was happening in Catcher, a past event that isn't mentioned until the last quarter of Bright Lights is even more so the key to understanding the book.

This novel has been woefully mischaracterised as an ode to the high-life 1980s, probably due to its ill-advised title. It's not American Psycho. It's not even about the rich; the protagonist works on a magazine, as a fact-checker. By no means does he live the high life. By no means is this a book "about being young, about doing drugs and about music", as the cover quote by Tony Parsons indicates with alarming inaccuracy. This is a book about a guy whose life has crumbled apart, and you navigate through a series of red herrings before at last you discover the real, and heartbreaking, reason.

It's Holden Caulfield for the 1980s.
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on 18 August 2013
Reading this nearly thirty years after the fact, BLBC becomes more than it was when it was first released, because there is so much nostalgia for the reader who lived through the period.

More importantly than that is the fact that Jay McInerney is a fine writer, very probably a great writer and someone that anyone interested in American literature should read. This book is wonderful, dark, funny and pretty bleak, but most of all a delight to read.
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Tracing a few days in the life of a 24-year-old writer whose brain is frequently inhabited by "brigades of Bolivian soldiers...tired and muddy from their long march through the night," Jay McInerney takes the reader into the world of cocaine, club-hopping (at the "right" clubs), casual sex, avoidance of responsibility, and full-time self-indulgence in the early 1980s. With absurd humor, he satirizes the "high" life of New York City and the non-stop action and party scene of young professionals whose frantic activity keeps them from having to deal with the real world.

The unnamed main character becomes the reader as the author uses the second person point of view, telling the story as "you" go to work and clubs, and jaunt around the city. "You" work for a magazine at which no one has ever been fired, and where old, burnt-out columnists maunder in the hallways (a satire of The New Yorker, perhaps). "Your" immediate assignment is to translate and fact-check an article about the French elections by a deadline that "you" cannot possibly meet.

Gradually, "your" story unfolds. Your marriage to Amanda, a fashion model from the Midwest, has collapsed after less than a year--you are devastated by her desertion, and you have told no one of your divorce. Your article for the magazine is a disaster. You avoid dealing with these issues and the death of your mother (more than a year ago) by creating a new reality for yourself through cocaine. The turning point of the action comes with the arrival of your brother Michael, who summons you back home for your mother's memorial service and the scattering of her ashes.

It is difficult to write a novel that focuses on shallow people living shallow lives without having the novel be shallow, but McInerney's point of view forces the reader to identify with the main character, and his uncompromising vision of this empty life, which he presents with absurd humor, is entertaining. Similes and metaphors here are sometimes over-the-top. ("Her voice was like the New Jersey state anthem played through an electric shaver." Tad is "a figure skater who never considers the sharks under the ice.") But these provide some variety within McInerney's short, staccato sentences, most of which march along like the "Bolivian soldiers." A snapshot of New York life in the early 1980s, Bright Lights, Big City is a landmark novel for its insights into an era. Mary Whipple
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 25 February 2012
You are in your early twenties and living in Manhattan, it's 1980s and you work for a prestigious magazine proud of its record for factual accuracy, and you work in the department responsible for checking those facts, The Department of Factual Verification. But you aspire to writing fiction and disdain you work, and that combined with your hedonistic lifestyle results in you not always coming up to par, so your boss has it in for you. To add to your troubles your wife has left you, but you don't tell anyone other than your friend Tad Allagash, the one who leads you in your life of pleasure seeking and frequent use of drugs.

Written unusually in the second person, McInerney's first novel, which caused a stir on its firs publication, is a funny and observant account of a young man whose life is getting out of control and running down hill, a young man who refuses all offers of help to get him back on track. The problem with that is that I find it hard to empathise with the character, and if I am going to enjoy a novel that is a prerequisite. "You" are a nice enough chap, but you have too many faults that I find you hard to relate to, and very soon hard to care about, and that is important if I am really going to get involved in your story. Of course this is also a very funny account, probably much funnier than I found it to be, perhaps I tend to read too earnestly, maybe I should get someone else to read it aloud to me to appreciate the humour.

Novels written in the second person are rare, and after reading this I am not surprised, McInerney undoubtedly pulls it off, yet at the same time the constant you-you-you can grate a little. I did not enjoy this as I had hoped, I came to it after having read Nick Earl's World of chickens and having noted Earl's high praise for it (and having thorouglhy enjoyed Earl's writing thought his recommendation worth following). Some time ago I read and truly enjoyed McInerney's The Last of the Savages so had high hopes for Bright Lights . . . While I am glad to have read it, I do not feel it came quite up to expectations, nonetheless I would recommend giving it a go, it only for its rare use of the second person.

(I read his in the Bloomsbury Classics hardback edition, pub 1992, it is worth mentioning that it is a very small format edition, a pocket sized book.)
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on 29 November 2007
I read this literally the moment it came out decades ago. And now I've revisited it once more. This is not a large book but it packs a punch and is funny and gripping in its own way. My particular copy is the American version with a view of the World Trade Centers on the cover, in the background--talk about a book set in the past. But that's why I have so taken to it again; it is a time capsule of New York, the way McCrae's "Katzenjammer" is, or the way the book "The Devil Wear Prada" is. And those books have more in common with "Bright Lights" than just insane bosses and drug and social problems. Few novels will change the landscape of literature, but "Bright Lights" did, ushering in the way for the works of Palahniuk, Sedaris, McCrae, and Ellis. Even Burroughs ows something to Mr. McInerney. My only problem with this one book? It was too short and should have been a 400 page novel. It's rare you can say this about a book, but in this case, it's true.
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on 29 April 2015
I prefer Bret Easton Ellis's debut "Less Than Zero" to this. McInerney is always worth reading and there is some nice, colourful and edgy writing but I think he really found his voice and depth with the classic "Brightness Falls" which came out a few years after this. This is an enjoyable read but I also felt there was something missing, which maybe to do with the fact that it's only 174 pages long. I longed for a little more depth and development and I felt it was just getting interesting and then it just stopped short of giving us that bit more that it seemed to promise.
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on 5 September 1999
First book I have read by the author and I will be reading more by him after this excellent book about the eighties. I saw the film years ago and always thought the book would be better. It took me a long time to get round to it but I started reading the book last week and I enjoyed it from start to finish. I would recommend this book to anyone but particularly fans of Bret Easton Ellis as although their styles differ the subject matter is similar.
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on 25 November 2014
One of my favourite books ever written (I've read hundreds). If you like Fear Attraction by Mark Hume and books by Brett Easton Ellis, you will love this. It is a fabulous snapshot of 80s New York culture. Recommended.
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