Bright Lights, Big City: Book Review

Updated on September 5, 2017
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Justin W. Price, AKA PDXKaraokeGuy, is a freelance writer, blogger, and award-nominated author based out of Juneau, Alaska.

Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney

Bright Lights, Big City
Bright Lights, Big City

The Vitals

Author: Jay McInerney

Pages: 182

1984, Vintage Contemporaries


Readability/entertainment value: 19/20

Educational value: 7/10

Writing/Editing 10/10

Total: 36/40

Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney

Jay McInerney’s debut novel, Bright Lights, Big City, was published in 1984. I just read it for the first time and found the message behind the novel to be as powerful and poignant today as it likely was when it was first released. Dealing with universal themes of loss and growing up in a confusing world, the novel cuts through straight to the heart—an unexpected emotional connection is formed.

A brisk, 181 pages, the novel covers one week in the life of an unnamed protagonist. At first, hedonistic and debauched, the first pages of the novel describe the effects of cocaine and the protagonists’ search for cocaine throughout the night clubs of Manhattan. We follow our protagonist through a feverish week of clubbing and aimless wandering. Often forgoing food and sleep in search of the ultimate high and meaning, we discover, that despite the potential of this young man, he has nothing. McInenry asks the question: Would you rather live in an illusion or lose your illusion?

From page on , we see our twenty-four year old protagonist resisting the lifestyle in search of a normal life, though influences and circumstances deny his best laid plans. Tad Allagash the best friend of the protagonist (and debauchee extraordinaire), continually pulls the protagonist down into the spiral with him. After all, what’s the fun of going down the rabbit hole by yourself?

The protagonist, an aspiring writer and fact checker for a prestigious magazine, in one scene longs for a normal night at home, and even tries to do some writing. Tad Allagash pops over and our protagonist says to him: “Have you ever experienced this nearly overwhelming urge for a quiet night at home?” Allagash responds with a simple “No.” Our protagonist gives in, every time in this short novel, going against his desires for normalcy.

As the novel progresses, we learn that his supermodel wife has left him. He loses his job (Proceeded by a hilarious revenge scene involving a ferret named Fred) and his life spirals out of control. This is where we get to the heart of the matter.

The novel is not about debauchery and hedonism for their own sakes. The novel is about dealing with loss and life ad coming to grips with being a grown up. It is about losing everything and starting over and learning to make better decisions and choose better friends. There is a purpose to everything our protagonist goes this.

Bright Lights, Big City, is an ambitious debut novel. Funny and vicious, emotionally wrenching and utterly accessible, the novel is an important tale and coping with a changing world and changing personal circumstances.

Told in second person present tense, the “you” narrator is engrossing, and this s further enhanced by the fact that our narrator remains nameless throughout (though, in the film version, starring Michael J. Fox, he is given the name Jamey). The urgency of the present tense slows down the action while the second person (“you”) narration draws you into the story. It’s a bold move as second person narration often leads to resistance on the part of the reader. McInerney pulls it off masterfully in this stunning debut novel.

Any writer aspiring to write a novel using second person narration would be advised to read this novel.

On the surface, Bright Lights, Big City may have a limited scope of appeal, however, the themes of loss and life and growing up in an ever-changing world are universal themes and McInerney goes straight for the heart.

Jay McInerney
Jay McInerney | Source


A rarely used narrative voice (especially in novels) where the second person ("you") narrator is used (as opposed to "I" in first person, or the "her, her, them, they, used in third person narration). Other novels that use Second person present tense include "The Night Circus" by Erin Morgenstern and "Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas" by Tom Robbins.

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