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. -- Salon
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Affirming and wise, McInerney's latest (after Brightness Falls) opens in a setting familiar to other extraordinary American novels: the ivy-swaddled campus of a New England boarding school. Here, two students meet as roommates in the mid-1960s: Will Savage, a quixotic Southern bad boy bewitched by the blues, and Patrick Keane, the more reserved and ambitious narrator, bent on defying his humble origins. The two form one of youth's unlikely yet intangible friendships, permanently tethering their quite different paths. Will scours the back roads of the Delta for blues, quickly emerging as a player in the booming record industry, while Patrick grinds his way to the top of the country's elite academic and legal institutions. As Will disavows his old-fashioned, wealthy father, Patrick finds in the patriarch a beguiling mentor. Will is a radiant character-the sort of self-consuming talent who sinks his teeth into life's fruit while the rest of us wait in line-the sort we look upon, as Patrick does, with a volatile mix of admiration, pique and envy. With the humanity of an older man, yet with an accuracy that trips nerves long left for dead, Patrick recalls bygone days when, as he says at the end of this warm, wondrously empathetic work, "I knew, at least for a little while, what it was like to be free." (May)
Poor old Alfred Knopf must be spinning in his grave to know that his once-illustrious company is the publisher of this muddled, pretentious book, easily a candidate for the worst novel of 1996. What had once been McInerney's (Bright Lights, Big City, LJ 10/1/84; Brightness Falls, LJ 5/1/92) saving grace as a writer-his satirical wit-is missing in this tale of a 30-year friendship. Patrick Keane, an Irish-Catholic scholarship student acutely aware of his humble origins, first meets Will Savage, the scion of an old, wealthy Memphis family, at an elite New England prep school in 1965. While Keane strives to join the WASP world of convention and material success, Savage rebels against it through drugs, rock'n'roll, and marriage to black Taleesha. For the next 300 pages, the reader is treated to a tedious plot, tired clichs, and wornout prose. Savage, supposedly a charismatic free spirit, is annoyingly dull. Bland Keane is the stereotypical repressed homosexual. "Studying the living room that night, I suddenly realized how feminine it was, all chintz and pillows...." Come on, Jay, you can do better than this. Not recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/96.]-Wilda Williams, "Library Journal"
School Library Journal
YA-Will Savage and Patrick Keane meet at an exclusive New England prep school in the late `60s. Will is from a wealthy Southern family; Patrick is a scholarship student with a blue-collar background. Both are trying to escape their pasts. Patrick becomes a successful New York lawyer and avoids his parents; Will embraces rock and soul music and a radical life style, deliberately defying his parents by befriending and promoting black musicians and their causes. The men's unlikely friendship lasts a lifetime, and is both strained and strengthened by their differences. Patrick, at first accepting of Will's largesse and admiring of his self-confidence, over the years becomes a source of support for Will, whose early success as a promoter fades, and whose drug and alcohol excesses threaten his health. YAs will recognize many of the musicians and styles depicted in this novel and will find its picture of the popular music world of the `70s and early `80s fascinating. They will identify with many of the themes presentedfamily ties that can be both binding and suffocating; school friendships that remain strong; and the dominant role money plays, especially its use both as a weapon and to redress past inequities. Some teens may find certain themes and language offensive, but the issues presented are universal, and their resolutions both provocative and entertaining.Molly Connally, Kings Park Library, Fairfax County, VA
The ravages of a self-destructive lifestyle have taken their toll on music mogul Will Savage. The son of wealthy Tennesseeans, he is the last in his family line. A born rebel, he is the kind of person who is destined for great things. He socializes with Negroes on pre-gentrified Beale Street, smokes marijuana with Mick Jagger in Morocco, records old blues singers (ala Alan Lomax) and new ones, and bows to no authority, especially his father, an eccentric patriarch whom Will is convinced had something to do with the assassination of Martin Luther King. McInerney's sprawling new novel, encompassing three decades and various regions of the U.S., is a bit schizophrenic and hard to categorize. Is it an East Coast prep-school coming-of-age novel or a southern family drama featuring a classic Oedipal struggle? A '60s tale of excess or an '80s tale of success? Anyway, it demands a sure hand to make it work. Although never heavy-handed or pretentious, McInerney touches on too many ideas and covers too much ground to be entirely successful at the task; for instance, he draws connections between the days before emancipation and the civil rights movement that are interesting but remain tenuous. Yet McInerney's intelligent prose is a pleasure to read, and bigger-than-life Will Savage is a memorable character.
From the hokey title to the sentimental insight of the last line, McInerney's latest yuppie melodrama (Brightness Falls, 1992, etc.) at best recalls the social-climbing novels of John O'Hara. More often, his glittering narrative is bedecked with the baubles of cheap fiction: rich people, raw sex, drugs, booze, and fame.
Part of McInerney's problem lies in his narrator, a creepy arriviste who's self-conscious about his failings, but never to the point of actually repudiating his shallow self. Now a middle-aged lawyer at a "white-shoe firm" (as he says more often than necessary), Patrick Keane first met his "legendary" friend, Will Savage, in 1965, at a New England prep school where the two roomed together. The last in a line of debauched and dysfunctional southerners, Savage displays all the self-assured recklessness of a rich kid who couldn't care less about SATs or fitting in. Rather, since it's the '60s, he cultivates his outlaw pose, reading the Beats, practicing Buddhism, digging the blues, and cruising the black neighborhoods of his native Memphis. Savage takes the fall for one of Patrick's prep school indiscretions, and thereafter Patrick serves as liaison to Will's screwed-up, right-wing family, though he can't prevent Will from marrying his longtime sweetheart, Taleesha Johnson, the niece of a prominent bluesman. Unbowed, Savage becomes a fabulously wealthy and successful record producer. Patrick, meanwhile, with a Park Avenue apartment, a nice wife and two kids, becomes a partner in his law firm and struggles to make sense of his own conflicted sexuality. McInerney's facile reconstructing of history allows Patrick to discover a pre-Bellum Savage family memoir that explains their entire racial history, and, as the years hurtle by, McInerney continues to blunder through time, repeatedly taking pratfalls in passages of oily writing.
Fiction for those who wouldn't be caught dead with Collins, Steel, et al. but want the same greasy splendor.