Is Jay McInerney overrated or underappreciated? Tough question. Certainly you can make a convincing argument that his reputation is as inflated as a Wall Street bonus: After achieving instant luminary status with "Bright Lights, Big City," a funny but slight first novel that happened to catch a tsunami-size Zeitgeist wave, he produced a bevy of hyped disappointments -- most recently "The Last of the Savages," a stiff, schematic attempt at "literary seriousness" that stole shamelessly from the Dead-White-Male English curriculum (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Yates, etc.). On the other hand, McInerney also wrote what I consider the best and most undervalued novel of 1980s venality -- albeit a little tardily in 1992. Sure, "Brightness Falls" got some strong reviews, but it was too often considered a poor sibling of Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities," a book that can't match "Brightness's" elegiac richness and surprising depth of characterization.
Now, with "Model Behavior," McInerney gives more ammunition to his naysayers. Packaged together with seven short stories, the title novel is a sporadically entertaining comedy that ends up trying for an emotional heft its thin plot line can't support. Returning to his well-dissected turf of downtown clubs and celebrity-haunted soirees, McInerney chronicles the decline and fall of Conner McKnight, a disgruntled journalist for a fashion magazine called CiaoBella! Despite having a $600 bank balance, Conner is the kind of guy who utters comments like: "Actually, I've never been a big Lafite fan." But don't let this tone of condescension fool you; Conner is actually suffering from a bad case of serotonin envy. Always an obscure player in a world whose Golden Rule is "Behave unto others as if they were about to become incredibly famous," he finds his already precarious social stock on the verge of a nose dive. Philomena, his supermodel girlfriend, is refusing to have sex with him, apparently as a preface to moving out. Meanwhile, his boss at CiaoBella! is threatening to fire him for uncool behavior in public. Hollywood stars have stopped returning his phone calls. If he's not careful, he might even have trouble getting a decent table at Union Square Cafe.
As usual, McInerney writes with great wit and verbal ingenuity. (My favorite line: "We moved to New York -- which is to monogamy what the channel changer is to linear narrative.") But the book exudes an aura of disingenuousness that dulls its satiric bite. McInerney is trying to parody a world whose glamour, all ironic poses notwithstanding, he obviously buys into. He's like one of those ingrates at fashionable gatherings who declaim ad nauseam against the boredom and inanity of such events -- but who never seem to turn down an invitation. And really, lampooning supermodels, Hollywood actors and media trend-slaves is a bit like shooting overfed angelfish in a barrel. It all seems a little too easy.
Still, McInerney might have pulled it off if he hadn't tried to get serious. Toward the end of the novel, Conner's crash-and-burn begins to take on a more earnest tone (somebody dear to him even dies a violent death, but given how obnoxious the character is, readers may greet this development with relief). Then, as in his first novel, McInerney tries to wrap things up on a note of bogus redemption, with our hero renouncing the triviality of his former existence in favor of a simpler, more honest mode of life. In "Bright Lights," this redemption was symbolized by the main character's trading his groovy Ray-Bans for a bag of freshly baked bread. In "Model Behavior," Conner forswears celebrity journalism and turns to what he considers a better, truer kind of writing -- i.e., he starts work on a movie script about his life.
A movie script? I guess it shows how far we've come that screenwriting -- which used to represent the ultimate sellout in novels like this -- has now become a kind of literary Peace Corps, the salvation of choice for escapees from a world even shallower than Hollywood.