I first heard of Jay McInerney when he did a spot on a Saturday morning talk show on Radio 4 in the early 1980s. He was in the UK to promote his first book, Bright Lights, Big City, and presumably his publisher had arranged this promotional chat. He didn't say anything particularly memorable about the book, but I do remember how he instructed his host in the pronunciation of his name. "Just think of me as three guys — Jay, Mack, 'n' Ernie." At the time, and even though it was clearly a line honed over many previous outings, this struck me as cute but also smart and pleasantly self-deprecating. Reading his latest collection of wine journalism, The Juice: Vinous Veritas (Bloomsbury, £14.99), however, I have thought about that wisecrack again, and have glimpsed a more melancholy depth within it.
McInerney is one of the "Brat Pack", a group of American writers who made a big impact in the 1980s. Also in that cohort were Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt. McInerney was never the most gifted writer in the pack; Donna Tartt's The Secret History seems to me the best book by far to come out of that milieu. But McInerney stuck at it. His early work took the form of slight novellas set in a promiscuous and drug-fuelled New York, in which the authorial stance towards his material was divided between a fundamental and sincere enthusiasm for hedonistic excess, and some concluding, perfunctory, and unconvincing gestures suggesting rueful censure of such reckless abandonment to pleasure.
It was no secret that McInerney inhabited this fictional world for real. "Ah yes, the Eighties," as he says wittily in one of the pieces collected here, "who can remember them?" Polite words for this dividedness would be "balance" or "ambiguity", but in McInerney's case it is much more like simple division. His heart was always on the pleasure side of the equation, but he also knew that in literature, hubris must be chastised — and he was determined to be a writer. His long novel of 1992, Brightness Falls (the title is a phrase taken from the Elizabethan writer Thomas Nashe), represented a bid for greater seriousness and moral weight, but although well-crafted, it was too patently written against the grain. An attempt to reprise the story of its main characters, The Good Life (2006), failed to make much impact. The 2009 collection of short stories, The Last Bachelor, marked a move back towards the smaller scale which is better suited to McInerney's talent (acuity of phrase and perception) and frailty (a lack of imaginative stamina).