46 pages 1 hour read

Jay Mcinerney

Bright Lights, Big City

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1984

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Summary and Study Guide


Jay McInerney’s debut novel, Bright Lights, Big City, was first published in August 1984 and made McInerney an instant literary star. He, along with fellow chronicler of Manhattan’s upper-class, Bret Easton Ellis, became key members of what journalist Hilary De Vries dubbed the “literary brat pack”—a label for writers under 30 that correlated with Hollywood’s “brat pack,” named for popular actors under 30.

Bright Lights, Big City was adapted into a film starring 1980s television star Michael J. Fox in 1988. Before publishing his bestselling novel, McInerney sold its first chapter, “It’s Six A.M. Do You Know Where You Are?” to The Paris Review. It was published in the journal’s Winter 1982 issue. McInerney went on to write nearly a dozen additional works, including two books on wine—none, however, matched the success of his debut novel. In 2006, Time magazine cited Bright Lights, Big City as one of nine generation-defining novels published in the 20th century.

Plot Summary

The unnamed narrator of the novel finds himself at yet another night club on yet another late night, talking to yet another young woman whom he doesn’t want to talk to. His friend, Tad Allagash, led him here and then disappeared. At dawn, the narrator leaves the nightclub and takes a lonely walk toward the Hudson River. He slowly makes his way back to his apartment in Lower Manhattan, where he catches the scent of freshly baking bread—a smell that reminds him of a happy time during his marriage with his estranged wife, Amanda White.

On Monday morning, the narrator goes to work at a highly-esteemed literary magazine where he works as a fact-checker in the Department of Factual Verification. The narrator has been assigned an article on French elections penned by a notoriously unreliable staff writer. He does a middling job on correcting the text and turns it in to his boss, Clara Tillinghast, whom he knows wants to fire him. The night that he finishes his assignment, he goes out clubbing with his friend Tad. The narrator occupies his time for several days while the article goes to Typesetting. He reminisces about his relationship with Amanda, has a boozy lunch with the aged staff writer Alex Hardy, and meets Tad’s attractive and intelligent cousin, Vicky Hollins.

Then, his day of reckoning arrives when Clara—furious over the poor state of the proofs—fires the narrator for failing to fact-check the article properly. He meets his firing with indifference but, later that night, returns to the office with Tad and a feral ferret named Fred. He releases the ferret in Clara’s office, but not before the animal bites his hand, rips a shred of cloth out of Tad’s pants leg, and upturns some boxes. The next day, still on a demolition mission, the narrator goes to a fashion show at the Waldorf Astoria at which he thinks Amanda will be working. Indeed, she—or a model who looks very much like her—walks the runway. The narrator yells out to her and gets himself booted from the building.

That night, the narrator returns to the Department of Factual Verification to clean out his desk. There, he finds Megan Avery, his former coworker, working late. She invites him to dinner at her place, where she shows him how to make linguine with clams. After dinner, the narrator goes to Megan’s bathroom and takes a Valium from a prescription bottle in her medicine cabinet. He then makes a pass at her on her sofa, which she politely refuses. She instead offers him maternal succor, which he accepts. He falls asleep in her lap and awakes, feeling woozy. He makes his way back into her bathroom and collapses. She finds him sprawled in the bathtub.

The next morning, the narrator awakes in Megan’s apartment. He goes back to Manhattan and to his apartment. When he answers his doorbell, he finds his younger brother, Michael, outside his door. He runs away from Michael and heads to a bar uptown. There, he meets a young woman who asks if he’ll buy her and her friend cocaine from a dealer she knows in exchange for a couple of Quaaludes. The next thing the narrator knows, he’s in this young woman’s bed in Queens.

The narrator returns to his apartment to meet Michael. They head to the Lion’s Head for a drink and something to eat. Michael reminds the narrator that it’s the first anniversary of their mother’s death and that their father wants the narrator to go home to be present for the spreading of her ashes. He recalls the day his mother died, and her urging him not to inject her with more morphine, despite her pain. She wanted to keep her head clear enough to talk—to get to know her son better. The narrator remembers, too, all of the times in which she unsuccessfully made bread—a warm memory of both her tenderness and her unsuitability for certain aspects of domesticity, which made him proud.

That night, the narrator attends a party at a warehouse with Tad. There, he sees his ex-wife, Amanda, and her new fiancé, Odysseus. Her casual, friendly manner strikes him as absurd and he laughs hysterically. He leaves the warehouse at dawn. He feels too exhausted to walk home and there’s no cab in sight. His nose starts to bleed, but he can smell the scent of bread. The narrator then sees a worker unloading bread from a truck. He trades his Ray-Ban sunglasses for some warm, fresh loaves, which he eats in the street. He realizes that he hasn’t eaten in a couple of days. His mouth is dry, making it hard to swallow. He eats the bread slowly, as though relearning how to eat.