BOOKS

Skin-deep satire

JUDITH TIMSON November 23 1998
BOOKS

Skin-deep satire

JUDITH TIMSON November 23 1998

Skin-deep satire

BOOKS

Literary purists love to hate American novelist Jay Mclnerney, who was heralded as a budding F. Scott Fitzgerald

when he published Bright Lights, Big City, his bravely funny 1984 novel about the lives of young, dissolute New Yorkers. In subsequent works, Mclnerney has courted dis-

dain by setting up permanent residence in the Land o’ Labels, relying on superficial details (Manolo Blahnik shoes and Jil Sander suits) as opposed to, say, character development and moral insight to tell his tales of literary young turks, glamorous models and trust-fund babies. These are characters who

quote John Cheever but get most excited when they score the right table at a trendy restaurant.

His latest book, Model Behavior (Knopf, $33.50), a novel and seven stories, is not going to stop the sniping. In it, Mclnerney gorges on labels (he describes a moment of revelation as “the other Manolo dropped”). But he also mischievously lampoons his own subject matter with writing that is, at times, both poignant and amusing.

In the title novel, Mclnerney introduces a familiar hero, who is “thirty-two and twothirds years old and not really happy about it.” Connor McKnight, a writer of celebrity profiles for the women’s magazine CiaoBella!, is stalled for takeoff on the literary runway (he’s been rejected by Beau Monde, a satirical take on Vanity Fair). He hangs out with his model girlfriend, Philomena, at charity balls. Meanwhile, she yearns for “the simple life.” Alas, Phil’s idea of the simple life is to run away with a real celebrity, leaving Connor to lurch around Manhattan dealing with his his witchy boss, his boorish but talented best friend and his anorexic sister, Brooke. When Mclnerney depicts Connor’s weird but somehow still warm family life, the writing comes alive. Languishing in bed after a breakdown, Brooke “resembles one of those bubble children who are born without an immune system; she does not possess that protective membrane that filters out the noise and pain of other creatures. She is utterly porous.” And in a hilarious set piece, when the family gathers at the tony St. Regis Hotel for Thanksgiving dinner, Connor’s genteel but alcoholic father upstages his wife’s risqué account of their courtship by suddenly exposing himself.

If, in the end, Connor doesn’t really grow and change, he does head-butt a celebrity in the face, which could be construed as a good start.

In seven other stories Mclnerney portrays, among others, a prison doctor, a drag queen and a suicidal woman who becomes the best basket-maker in rehab and wants, when she leaves, to open a craft store called The Basket Case. One of the better stories, “How It Ended,” features a pompous young lawyer away with his wife on a romantic vacation. When they meet a younger, more vibrant couple, the lawyer reveals his disappointment with his wife as he muses; “Seeing her in a two-piece, I honestly felt that [she] needed to do a bit of toning and cut back on the sweets.”

Lines like this are chilling precisely because of their shallowness. The trick for Mclnerney is to prove that his characters are shallow rather than his writing. The maturing of any writer means recognizing that God may well be in the details, but the details need to deepen and darken as years go by. To that end, he could probably cut back further on the sweets himself.

JUDITH TIMSON