The Third Brother by Nick McDonell

Who is that white guy in the mirror?
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The Independent Culture

Nick McDonell's 2002 debut, Twelve, was a small lesson in stylistic restraint. That, though, was not the big news attendant upon its publication. McDonell was then just 18 years old, a well-connected Upper East Side rich kid chronicling the excesses of his peers; when the novel glittered under praise from Hunter S Thompson - a family friend - and subsequently became a bestseller, some observers cried nepotism and hype. Much, then, rides on his second novel.

Here are the same sentences of brutal terseness, the same continuously rolling, filmic present tense. And the protagonist, Mike, is another super-privileged Mahattanite. But The Third Brother is a better novel than Twelve, because it addresses depths of feeling that the latter left untouched. Happily, McDonell still eschews the showy, essayistic style currently so fashionable in American writing in favour of a determination to present his characters unadorned. But, now, his obvious technical precocity is beginning to serve a fine, wry judgement.

We join Mike, a Harvard undergraduate, in Hong Kong, where he is interning on a magazine edited by his father's friend, Elliot Analect. Aimless in the office, Mike is sent to Thailand to locate missing journalist Christopher Dorr, another friend, since college, of both Analect and Mike's father. In Hong Kong and searching for Dorr amid young westerners spaced out on drugs and pseudo-eastern spirituality, Mike realises that he has been drawn into the tightly-drawn matrix of competition that joins the three men and that centred, years ago, on the pursuit of his mother.

It's a story that silently casts its lines until, suddenly, the attention is hooked. Much of it is filtered through Mike's consciousness, and he is a persuasive creation, at once knowing and uncertain, who wonders: "Is there a hole in the world so deep that my father can't track me down and pull me out?" and sees "a clean, broad white guy in good clothing" when he looks in the mirror. McDonell's tough, minimalist sentences, meanwhile, are ruthlessly stripped of any excess: of Mike's base in Thailand we learn only: "The hotel is white with a revolving door."

Though there is little visual detail, the culminative effect is strangely cinematic, and in this McDonell has a claim to be considered a true stylist. Moreover, this prose, though spare, is still capable of registering the subtle nuances in Mike's unfolding self-realisation; he wonders if the friendship between his father, Dorr, and Analect, "...dissipated thirty years ago in the air behind jet planes and thrown wedding bouquets."

The book's last part finds Mike back in 9/11-stricken NYC, tending to his disturbed brother, Lyle, in the aftermath of a family crisis. The novel has weaknesses; the section's major plot turn, in particular, seems ill-conceived. Nevertheless, its depiction of a young man embracing the accommodations that come with adult existence is captivating.

In those last pages, as so often in The Third Brother, we see a penetrating, empathetic intelligence at work. This time, then, let there be no doubt: 21-year-old, well-connected Nick McDonell is the real thing.

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