The Last of the Savages

Stephanie Zacharek reviews "The Last of the Savages" by Jay McInerney.

Published May 6, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

If the sloppy layers of Deep Truths and Potent Observations that make up Jay McInerney's fifth novel are any indication, he desperately wants all those Fitzgerald comparisons to stick. But while Fitzgerald's approach was like a mother-of-pearl cufflink, McInerney's is like those little chains that aspiring hotshot businessmen who don't know any better wear over their neckties.

"The Last of the Savages" chronicles the close friendship between two men from their days at a New England prep school in the mid-'60s to the present. Patrick Keane, the narrator, is a working-class Irish Catholic who aspires to a creased-chino-and-Weejun level of respectability; Will Savage is the scion of a rich Southern family who'd rather listen to the blues than take the spaniels out for a day of duck hunting. McInerney gets to compare and contrast all over the place as Patrick's and Will's lives take divergent turns. Patrick studies hard and eventually ends up at a gray, prestigious law firm; Will listens to R&B records, smokes dope, and eventually becomes a famous record producer/cokehead.

What's worse, though, than McInerney's cutout characters -- telegraphed twists and all -- is that he wants to be a hip Fitzgerald, which is why he overembroiders to the point of embarrassment Will's affinity with black culture. McInerney's understanding of the blues as an art form goes about as deep as two fingers of cheap scotch, and it's borderline racist to boot. "This is the purest art this damn country has produced, man," Will tells Patrick as he spins an old blues record. ". . . It's like the distilled essence of suffering and the yearning to be free. That's why it could only have been produced by the descendants of slaves."

McInerney could stand to read some Albert Murray, not to mention get a little Robert Johnson under his belt as something other than term-paper research. His rehearsed hipness is so uptight it hurts. It could only have been produced by the descendant of some very, very white people.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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