McInerney's 'Model': Celebrity self-absorbtion

September 13, 1998|By Ken Tucker | Ken Tucker,Special to the Sun

"Model Behavior," by Jay McInerney. Knopf. 272 pages. $24.

The title piece of Jay McInerney's new book is a novella about Connor McKnight, a magazine journalist who is dating a model named Philomena Briggs and who is also late in turning in a profile of a hot actor, Chip Ralston, because the superstar is avoiding him. This tale is, in short, the stuff of superficiality, a characteristic emphasized by the way McInerney divides his 176-page story into bite-size sections with breezy subtitles such as "What She Saw In Connor" and "Attack of the Five-Foot Salary-Man."

But as McInerney has proven time and again, he possesses the rare skill of investing superficiality with emotional and moral weight. From his debut novel, "Bright Lights, Big City" to 1996's marvelously panoramic "The Last of the Savages" McInerney has trafficked in the stuff of celebrity and the self-absorbed ambitions of New Yorkers and Los Angelenos, and "Model Behavior" is his latest variation on this. It is also one of his most clever, funny, and moving.

For Connor - "32 and two-thirds years old and not really happy about it; [s]till waiting for his life to begin" - life is a series of chic Manhattan parties interspersed with attempts to connect with the increasingly distant Philomena and his likably cynical sister, Brooke, whom Connor worries is succumbing to anorexia.

In satirizing the New York publishing world, McInerney mixes hip real names with fictional ones-there are precise, pointed jokes at the expense of Paul Auster and Thomas Beller, for example. (McInerney also makes a nicely snide joke about the well-known writer Jay McInerney, and of course, like Connor, it is well-known that McInerney once dated a model, Marla Hanson.)

The magazine Connor works for, Beau Monde, sounds like a thinly disguised Vanity Fair, and McInerney has down cold that torturous process that is the arranging for a celebrity profile-the endless dickering and haggling with agents and editors about "accessability"; the cat-and-mouse reluctance of writer and subject to face each other with anything approaching honesty.

Beneath the wry tone and icy apercus (New York "is to monogamy what the channel-changer is to linear narrative," McInerney has a more substantial tale to tell-Connor's awareness of his failure to connect: with his sister, with his parents (there's a heartbreakingly funny section on their drunken Thanksgiving visit), with true love, and with his own best instincts.

At its best, "Model Behavior" is like a "Great Gatsby" for end of the century: quietly tragic, a comically rueful guide to the unhappiness that leads people to pursue worldly gain when what they really only want is love.

The remainder of "Model Behavior" consists of eight short stories of wildly varying quality, ranging from the touching ("Smoke," in a which a couple's attempts to break the cigarette habit is a metaphor for their frustrated marriage) to the satirical ("The Business," in which McInerney invites another Fitzgerald comparison, with a tale that reads uncannily like an updated version of the latter's "Pat Hobby Stories"). If the stories are slight, however, the title novella is supple and sinewy; proof once more that the underrated McInerney is no lightweight.

Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Entertainment Weekly, where he writes about television, movies, books and music. He was a critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1982 to 1989, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism in 1985.

Pub Date: 9/13/98

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