Ah, Harvard in springtime! Where everything is green and bustling. Where the talented and the lucky can roam free! Young Nick McDonell is making his way across the verdant campus. He is heading to Shay’s Pub for a beer in the middle of the afternoon on a Monday, and why not? He is 21 and he recently completed his third year of college and his second novel. His first, Twelve, an account of Upper East Side teenagers into drugs, violence, and Ebonics—which he wrote when he was 17—was an international best seller, the kind of child-prodigy literary splash that elicits the most splenetic watercooler hostility. Joan Didion called it “a real achievement.”
After McDonell settles himself in front of some potted plants on the pub’s patio, he says, “I was born at the right time, in the right place, to the right people.” His handsome head looks as if it’s sprouting out of a bowl of violas. After Twelve’s publication, McDonell “spent two years feeling guilty and trying to deal with the nepotism stuff. But everyone tells me this is how it works. Except for my dad, who came from nothing. Terry, in a miraculous life, has progressed from poverty to being the managing editor of Sports Illustrated.”
Terry is Terry McDonell, former Montana cowboy, Berkeley student radical, editor of Esquire, and the acquaintance of many of the most prominent literary personages of our time (Joan Didion, for example). Terry is very close to Morgan Entrekin, Nick’s publisher at Grove Press and also the godfather of Terry’s younger son, Thomas, whom they call Tom-O and who Nick claims is “the best-looking person in lower Manhattan.” (Actually, Tom-O is not currently in lower Manhattan, but it’s possible that he’s the best-looking person in Bali, where he’s assistant to the painter Ashley Bickerton.)
“When Tom-O turned 10, Morgan gave him an alligator-skin wallet with 200 bucks in it,” says Nick. “As if a 10-year-old knows what to do with an alligator-skin wallet!” Besides Entrekin, Tom-O’s other godfather was Hunter S. Thompson. Nick’s are P. J. O’Rourke and Russell Chatham. George Plimpton had no official title but always served as a kind of wise adviser.
McDonell is not unaware of the effect these relationships have had on his career, or on other people. During interviews, he used to practice “verbal jujitsu,” he says. “In self-defense I’d say I am this marketing vehicle; I am all these things,” before anyone in the press could accuse him of being nothing more than the sum of his connections. (Sometimes they dissed him anyway—funny how some people can feel threatened by a guy who is younger, richer, better-looking, Harvard-educated, and more successful.) But he’s tired of trying to inoculate himself against resentment, so today McDonell is experimenting with a lower-key form of humility, paired with a forthrightness about the fact that he lives a very, very good life.
He wrote his new novel, The Third Brother, at the home of an acquaintance in Hawaii, for example, during what would have been the second semester of his sophomore year. “I would get up every morning and surf until noon and then write until I hit 1,000 words,” he says. He wrote his first book while at his parents’ house in the Hamptons—“I felt guilty; I felt like I should get a job,” he says. Both of his fiction-writing experiences have been punctuated by elite schools and waves. “I’ve had,” he says, “absurdly good luck.”
What is perhaps the most interesting expression of McDonell’s privilege is not that it has allowed him to succeed but the effortlessness with which he shoulders his success. He doesn’t seem hungry. He doesn’t seem cocky. He doesn’t seem insecure. He has beautiful manners and he pays attention to other people (he is on a first-name basis with every building and grounds officer we run into at Harvard). He wears success the way an heiress wears couture: as if he were born to it.
The Third Brother will be out in September and will almost certainly be a literary-world event. Just as certainly, McDonell’s ongoing rise, and enormous advantages, will provoke jealousy that curdles into scorn. “Page Six” recently ran an item about him under the headline ‘RICH' KID WRITER FACES WRATH, in which McDonell’s fellow underage novelist Marty Beckerman called his writing “self-serving swill from a rich kid with connections.” And McDonell has been encountering some attitude as he looks for a summer internship at a city newspaper: Would-be employers have been suspicious of the golden-boy novelist who wants to work at a crime desk.
But here at Harvard, everyone is exceptional. So McDonell doesn’t stand out, he asserts, as more beer arrives and more sun shines.