Bright lights, big city

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

Toby Young <em>Little, Brown, 352pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 031

In the autumn of 1998, having been gently released by Vanity Fair magazine, Toby Young started writing a column for a free sheet called the New York Press. In one of his first columns, he boldly announced that what was to follow would bar him from writing for any publication owned by Conde Nast. He proceeded to tell the story of his fall from grace at Vanity Fair. On reading it, Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair and the king of this fable, said: "If Toby had written like this when he was working for me, I never would have fired him."

In this fairy tale, a British journalist, late of Oxford, Harvard and the defunct Modern Review, is summoned to New York City. After many adventures involving alcohol, he is dismissed from the glittering, Machiavellian court of Vanity Fair, and stumbles about the city, his only shield being drunken integrity. Ultimately, inevitably, he is saved by the love of a good woman, with real "Baywatch tits, perfect 34Ds", as it happens.

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People is a strange hybrid of memoir and fiction, massaged truth and omissions, fantasy and reality. Much is made of Young's failure in the face of his friends' successes. Other than Carter, a recurring princely character is someone called Alex de Silva, who moved to Los Angeles as Young moved to New York, and became a successful screenwriter, sleeping with "one of the ten most famous supermodels in the world".

De Silva is based on Sacha Gervasi, the screenwriter of a Scottish hairdressing comedy, and the "top ten" supermodel is the 36-year-old aspiring actress Veronica Webb. By all accounts other than Young's, the two were a hilarious, schmoozing, wannabe third-tier power couple, and the fruit of their alliance was Webb's walk-on part in Gervasi's Scottish comedy. By dressing up the truth and changing their names under the guise of discretion, Young promotes his own fantasy, while the truth, as ever, is infinitely more tawdry and germane. In one exchange with Alex/Sacha, Young observes: "If I were sleeping with ____ I'd certainly want the whole world to know about it." Well, yes and no, because nowhere in the book does he make mention of his relationship with Lucy Sykes, a New York-based British fashion editor who enjoyed a passing celebrity in New York because she happened to have a twin sister who was also a well-known fashion editor. Her stature as a fabulous person, perhaps, did not make sense in a book cataloguing one man's ignoble descent.

Fiction also steps in with the incident that Young claims caused his demise from Vanity Fair. He was, according to his own account, drunk in a bar called Pravda and unable to pay the bill. In the book, he makes a run for it, is tackled by a bouncer who "floored me with a right hook" and then "beat the crap out of me". Young might be a particularly delicate drunken flower, and drink does cloud the memory, but in reality he taunted the bouncers for an hour about his inability to pay, made a run for it and was halted. The bouncers don't recall anything more serious than tackling Young as he tried to bolt.

Much is made of the corporate American attitude to sex, especially at Vanity Fair, where King Carter admonishes court jester Young for his laddish behaviour. Carter tells Young that "in New York there's no such thing as ironic sexism", and a colleague leaves the Conde Nast policy on harassment on his desk, which informs him that "sexual remarks, advances, propositions, touching or other physical contact would result in disciplinary action up to and including dismissal". Here, Young once more fatally pulls his punches because he is too sycophantic to mention that Carter himself later ended his 18-year marriage in order to take up a dalliance with one of his own underlings.

Baffled as to what became of the New York of his dreams, Young ends with a recollection of the death of his mother in 1993, and the proposal he made six years later to the woman who is now his wife. "I'd cut the umbilical cord with the razor blade I'd used every time I'd taken cocaine," he writes of his failure to live up to his mother's expectations. It is the kind of fatuous, spuriously profound remark one seldom hears outside of conversations with cocaine-infected Americans.

Now banished from the kingdom of Conde Nast and once more in London, Young admits to a drink problem, but says he has discovered that "some people are lucky enough to stumble across the right path straight away; most of us only discover what the right one is by going down the wrong one first". And writing a book about it.

William Georgiades is a former editor-in-chief of the New York style magazine Black Book