The mercurial brat pack writer is at his heady best — and most revealing — in his collected works on wine
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).
But at the same time as McInerney’s career as a novelist was going sideways, a new possibility was opening up. In the mid-1990s he became wine writer for House & Garden, which had recently been taken over by a friend. When House & Garden folded in 2007, he was taken on as “wine consultant” to the Wall Street Journal. The articles collected in The Juice are predominantly taken from these publications, seasoned with a handful from Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, etc. Read individually, as they came out month by month over a period of years, they must have seemed run-of-the-mill. They were often unusually well-written by comparison with ordinary wine journalism, but aside from that verbal embellishment, they looked nothing special. A typical format would be to take a particular grower, a particular type of wine, or a particular region, and to fold into a brief narrative of a visit a sprinkling of factual information which could have been assembled by anyone able to use an index from any half-decent collection of standard wine reference works.
The provision of uncommon information was never the point of these articles. Their merit lay elsewhere, in areas that had affinities with the fictive side of McInerney’s life which was just then in the process of fraying. It was as if the energy and focus which had previously gone into his novels was being decanted into a new format.
The persona McInerney crafted for these pieces was never too pungent, and was deliberately kept close to what the average reader would know about the actual McInerney. But it was nevertheless a subtle fictive creation composed of various elements. A prominent ingredient in the mix was the pampered epicure, demanding a series of the rarest vintages to accompany lavish meals taken in Michelin-starred restaurants. Another, slightly in tension with this, was the outsider who jealously preserved his lack of professional credentials while mixing with the world’s wine aristocracy. And yet a third was the child avid for gratification — the more and the sooner, the better. At times reading these pieces one is put in mind of nothing so much as Yeats’s wonderful image of Keats in “Ego Dominus Tuus”:
I see a schoolboy when I think of him,
With face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window,
For certainly he sank into his grave
His senses and his heart unsatisfied, . . .
Shut out from all the luxury of the world
It may seem odd to think of McInerney as “shut out from all the luxury of the world” given that these articles are despatches from a world of what is for most of us a realm of privilege and indulgence. Yet at the core of this world is an almost unimaginable coarseness and poverty. One of the most vivid of these articles describes a New York wine auction at which a group of extremely wealthy men are bidding for the finest and rarest wines, while at the same time getting furiously drunk. “Stinky as the crack of a ninety-year old nun” is how one of them describes an aged Burgundy; “tighter than a fourteen-year-old virgin” says another about a champagne — maybe riskily, given the laws about the age of majority in the state of New York. These metaphors, in more decent garb, also appeal to McInerney; a recurrent feature of these articles is the comparison of a wine to an actress (“more Christina Hendricks than Gwyneth Paltrow”). The brutal avidity of these men for the best and finest vintages is driven negatively, by the fear of death. “Life is short,” says one, “you’ve got to drink it.” McInerney is on the fringes of this world, but he shares its malaise of fear and longing from which the pleasure of wine provides a temporary distraction. The complicated persona of his wine writing — a bitter literalising of that youthful gag about it being best to think of him as three people — reflects the fracturing of the self which arises from anxiety and yearning, and the consciousness of being estranged from the genuine and solid luxury of contentment. Taken together, these articles are profoundly elegiac.
So read The Juice as you might a novel, and if possible at a single sitting. It contains the best writing from McInerney since Bright Lights, Big City. And squinted at from the right angle, it is more genuinely affecting than the rest of his fiction put together.