Observer Review: Twelve By Nick McDonell Essay, Research Paper
Child’s play Twelveby Nick McDonellAtlantic Books £9.99, pp244The title of Nick McDonell’s first novel does not, in fact, refer to the author’s age, though you could be forgiven for thinking so. When a book comes so pre-feted, it can be difficult to shut out the roar of the publicity – the author’s extreme youth (he wrote it at 17), the endorsements from Richard Price and Hunter S Thompson splashed over the jacket, the comparisons with Brett Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney, the fawning of literary New York – but McDonell is an authentic talent and, long after the storms of hype have died away, his novel will endure as a snapshot of his generation as surely as Less Than Zero did of the Eighties.McDonell wisely limits the scope of his novel to the world he inhabits, and if this provokes the rather obvious complaint that the concerns of 17-year-olds are generally narrow, McDonell at times displays an enviable ability to observe his generation from a sympathetic distance. His characters are the teenage sons and daughters of Manhattan’s super-rich, left to rattle around their cavernous Upper East Side townhouses one Christmas by dysfunctional, absent parents, mooching through their sterile days and nights demanding to be entertained by sex, drugs or violence.The girls are post-surgically beautiful and bored, longing to be famous; the boys hanker after the perceived glamour of the city’s lowlife, self-consciously appropriating the dialect and gestures of black kids from Harlem’s housing projects. Through this group of loosely connected and largely unappealing characters moves White Mike, a drug dealer taking a year out between high school and Harvard. That Mike was inspired to his present occupation by Ricky in American Beauty offers an insight into the inner lives of these adult-children.The glittering surfaces mask a legacy of loneliness and pain; a generation of kids abandoned to housekeepers and nannies as children and as teenagers shunted off to shrinks by parents who would rather pay someone else to discuss their children’s unhappiness. One boy remarks of his Christmas: ‘My dad gave me cash. I never see him, but he got a little tree for the kitchen table. He’s sort of sentimental.’Mike’s cousin, Charlie, learns to his cost that owning a gun does not put you on an equal footing with the dealers of Harlem; Hunter is jailed for murder and fears for the first time that his father cannot step in; Claude becomes obsessed with weaponry, hoarding swords and guns in his room, while Jessica hopes to buy friends with her discovery of the new designer drug, Twelve, unaware of its potency.Very little actually happens in the novel. It is set apart by the narrative voice, pared down and surprisingly sharp. Occasionally, McDonell shows a poet’s command of imagery – ’skeletal rollercoasters and faded billboards’ perfectly captures Coney Island in winter – and his incorporation of the clunking gaucheness of teenage slang into his narrative is sparing and knowing enough to allay any early fears that this is how he actually writes: ‘Sara Ludlow is the hottest girl at her school by, like, a lot.’Timmy and Mark Rothko, two white kids desperately wanting to be black, are an easy target to lampoon but very funny none the less, unable even to understand each other in their incomprehensible half-rap: ‘S’all breezy on the heezy fo sheezy mah neezy.’Naturally, Twelve is not without flaws; some characters are left underdeveloped at the expense of descriptive passages that have a whiff of creative writing exercise about them, and it should be a golden rule of all fiction never to attempt to describe a hallucinogenic trip, particularly when the master of the genre has lent his name to your jacket. But the novel’s brutal climax manages to be shocking, in spite of the author’s visible manoeuvring towards it, and it is to his credit that a scene which could so easily have toppled into cliché instead hits the reader exactly as it should.The voice is not original – Ballard, Bukowski and the Beat writers are all obvious influences as well as Easton Ellis and McInerney, but it is remarkably assured (and it is almost impossible not to add here ‘for so young a writer’).The lasting impression is that Nick McDonell, like the young Chatterton, is very good at imitating an existing narrative style. The reader can look forward confidently to the book he will produce when his voice has become properly his own.