BookEnds: Student Novelist Grapples With 9/11, Then—Abruptly—Shrinks Back

Flashes of brilliance and abrupt plot twists abound in McDonell’s second book

"The Third Brother"

By Nick McDonell

Grove Press ($22.00)

In Stores Now

In his newest novel, “The Third Brother,” Nick McDonell ’06 sends his fellow Harvard classmates the impression that he doesn’t like us very much.

He belittles the student literary magazine The Advocate, calling its members “mostly messy-haired people” who “get blasted there on cheap booze.” And he mocks a female undergrad who is participating in the time-honored tradition of urinating on the John Harvard statue, calling her a “panting little primate.”

At one point, McDonell’s protagonist, Mike, wants us all dead. As he walks across campus on a late December evening, Mike tells us: “I imagined that it wasn’t Christmas Eve and people were around, but everyone was frozen, suffocated under the snow. It was a very beautiful scene.”

Thankfully, though, McDonell doesn’t kill us all in this novel. Which gives us an edge over McDonell’s high school classmates at Riverdale, who met a grizzly demise in his first book, “Twelve.”

“Twelve” is a chilling story about preppy New York City teens who get high on hard-core narcotics, sleep with drug dealers, and – ultimately – shoot each other. That novel, which McDonell wrote during the summer of 2001 before his senior year of high school, climaxed in a bloodbath more befitting a B-movie than a serious literary work. Nonetheless, the book elicited effusive praise from critics in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, and McDonell’s pithy prose was appropriately likened to Hemingway’s.

McDonell’s second novel seems to attempt a far more ambitious task: to grapple with the tragedy of 9/11. Unfortunately, by the end of the novel, McDonell and his main character Mike shrink back from that task.

The events of 9/11 receive only three mentions – all in passing – in the final 40 pages of the book. Whereas the end of “Twelve” seemed like an episode of “Cops” gone awry, the end of “The Third Brother” seems more like a cop-out.

For all its flaws, though, “The Third Brother” makes even more clear what readers of “Twelve” already knew: McDonell is a skillful storyteller who deserves the awe and admiration of his fellow students—even if he ruminates over our deaths.

The first half of “The Third Brother,” set in Bangkok, traces Mike, a rising sophomore at Harvard and a summer intern at an Asian newsmagazine, as he befriends whores and journalists-—the distinction between the two professions becomes blurred in the novel—while researching an article on the Thai ecstasy scene. (Though the protagonists of “The Third Brother” and “Twelve” share a common first name and several character traits, McDonell’s second novel is not a sequel to his first.)

Mike’s trip to Bangkok quickly becomes a sort of Thai version of “Heart of Darkness.” The country’s prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, is waging a ruthless war against drug traffickers, with innocent civilians and foreign tourists caught in the crossfire. Meanwhile, Mike tracks down his father’s onetime Holworthy Hall roommate, Christopher Dorr, a freelance journalist who has moved into a dense Bangkok shanty-town and who has become a modern-day version of Conrad’s sadistic Captain Kurtz.

Just as the Bangkok characters start to come alive, McDonell abruptly drops his “Heart of Darkness” subplot and cuts back to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. On a crisp September morning, Mike (who has transferred to Columbia) is buying a blueberry muffin in a coffee shop as the first plane strikes the World Trade Center. Mike races toward ground zero to find his older brother Lyle, who lives near the site.

Mike’s descent toward the inferno at the bottom of Manhattan is reminiscent of Dante’s journey to the depths of Hell in “The Divine Comedy.” Mike is separated from his girlfriend Jane during the chaotic hours after the attacks, evoking memories of the pair of lovers in Dante’s epic – Francesca and Paulo – who are tossed around by the “stormy blast of Hell.” McDonell’s image of a turban-wearing taxi driver – unconscious and blood-soaked in a smoking cab on a West Side sidewalk – is perhaps a reference to Dante’s heretic, Pope Anastasius, who lies inside a flaming sepulcher in the Inferno.

Mike sees a headline about a rabbi and Mayor Giuliani on a tabloid cover – perhaps a reference to the fact that illegitimate priests and corrupt politicians both reside in the same ring of Dante’s Hell. The office-workers who jumped from the burning towers would fit into Dante’s Wood of Suicides. And Mike – who becomes a liar when he claims that “I lost my family in the attack on New York City” – is himself a falsifier, condemned to Dante’s eighth circle.

If this drawn-out allusion to Dante is purposeful, it raises the discomforting and rather absurd suggestion that New Yorkers are themselves somehow guilty for 9/11. But even if the allusion to Dante is unintentional – as one would hope – then McDonell’s treatment of 9/11 is still both mystifying and maddening. The terrorist attacks are portrayed as a sort of reflection of Mike’s personal tragedies. His mother and father, who form a dysfunctional and unloving couple, have cast a shadow over his childhood, and the fall of the Twin Towers comes shortly after his parents’ death in a fiery blaze. Moreover, the Twin Towers collapse as Mike is losing the two pillars of his own life: his brother Lyle and his girlfriend Jane. It seems that McDonell is likening the events of 9/11 to Mike’s travails, which – though also tragic – are absolutely incomparable to the terrorist attacks.

When Mike transfers back to Harvard after the attacks, he is utterly out-of-touch with reality. Nearly every time he opens his mouth, he spews out lies (with one exception: he carries on a frank, two-way conversation with a fossilized vertebra at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.) His behavior grows increasingly pathological: at one point, he embarks on a bid to convince his fellow students not to buy newspapers from the homeless man in Harvard Square who sells Spare Change News.

Perhaps Mike deserves a special dispensation due to the personal tragedies he has faced, but as his behavior becomes increasingly bizarre and downright mean-spirited, he ceases to evoke any measure of sympathy.

In his first novel, “Twelve,” McDonell accomplished the impressive feat of making his readers care deeply about a protagonist who dealt hard drugs to high schoolers. But in “The Third Brother,” Mike has made it clear that he detests his fellow Harvard students. And by the end of the novel, the feeling is mutual.

—Staff writer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at hemel@fas.harvard.edu.