“Excuse me,” says a redheaded man in his thirties who is seated at the next table at Shay’s, “but who are you and what have you written?” McDonell tells him, and the man says he’s very excited to have met him and leaves. McDonell starts to tell me how happy he was to get a good review from Michiko Kakutani for Twelve, and how it hurt when she said he sometimes “annoyingly slips into pseudo-Hemingway-esque prose,” because he knew she was right. “I know I’m derivative,” he says. “Of Hemingway, Salinger, Stephen Crane.”
The redhead is back! He has just run over to the campus bookstore to buy McDonell’s book and wants an autograph.
“That’s never happened before,” McDonell says, but he doesn’t seem put out and he doesn’t seem embarrassed.
Later that evening, he meets a bunch of friends at a place called Charlie’s Kitchen. They’re all tall and they all order hamburgers. There’s Tim, a slim, elegant young man from Oklahoma who wears a blazer over a yellow T-shirt and has a small hickey on his neck. He is getting ready for his summer job on a yacht—the same job he had last summer. “It was nuts! I met David Rockefeller,” he says, and tells me about how he’d find himself in “these ornate rooms lined with gilded tomes” whenever they docked. “It was like low-rent Dickens.”
Tim’s girlfriend, Théa, has an eyebrow pierce and wears a fringy scarf. She is the only one in the group who’s read Twelve, but, she says, “I’m not gonna say what I thought about it.”
There’s Gemma, McDonell’s girlfriend, whom he hasn’t been seeing for long but says he “likes a lot.” She has a soft voice and big shoulders from rowing crew and bright-red hair. Unlike the rest of them, Gemma is graduating, and the strain of having to face the world is buzzing through her. “Tim just kinda falls into things, and Nick will obviously be fine, but I don’t have a story. I’m just a white girl from Massachusetts.” Gemma has never read McDonell’s fiction. “I don’t want to be like, ‘Darling, your book is wonderful.’ ” But she feels bad when he apologizes for his writing career, because, after all, “it’s something that’s in his life.”
Recently, Gemma and Nick and some friends were hanging out with a guy who was working on a fiction thesis, and she revealed McDonell’s status as a novelist with publishers around the world and Hollywood film rights sold and an upcoming book tour. “The kid almost assaulted him,” she says.
“But I feel like that relationship exists here between everyone to varying degrees,” Tim says.
The Third Brother is set partly at Harvard, partly in New York, and partly in Bangkok, where McDonell spent a summer reporting. “I said to Pops, I’m looking for internships; he contacted the bureau chief of Time in Asia,” McDonell says. His protagonist, Mike, is also in Asia because his father hooked him up with an old friend, a bureau chief, and, like Nick, Mike desperately searches Bangkok for an authentic experience, a taste of actual wildness. “Let’s just see how far it can go, let’s see how much trouble a white kid from New York can actually get into,” McDonell writes. “Is there a hole in the world so deep that my father can’t track me down and pull me out?”
A month later, it’s extremely hot, and Terry McDonell and Morgan Entrekin are savoring the air-conditioning and the prosciutto at the Italian place next door to the Sports Illustrated offices. They’re talking about how Tom-O is doing in Bali, and Entrekin is saying, “I have a guy over there, terrific writer, dangerous place.”
“Fucked up,” Terry growls.
The words nepotism and connections have not been uttered when Entrekin volunteers, “The best evidence of how good Nick is is that 27 publishers internationally have bought his book, and a few of them know me, but none of ’em know Nick, and most of ’em don’t know who I am, and none of ’em buy a book just because they know who I am. They buy a book because they read it!”
McDonell has been toying with the idea of becoming “a weird celebrity man of letters—like Plimpton. But then I can’t imagine George saying something like that.”
Entrekin wears a pale-blue Izod with white pants and a seersucker jacket. It is two weeks before his wedding in the south of France, which will be attended by McDonells young and old. “I am very close with Nick and his brother, and his father’s one of my oldest friends. But I don’t buy or publish books by children of my friends,” Entrekin says, pushing a hand through his long silver hair. “I publish books I think are great! I use Twelve as an example when people ask me, ‘How much of a book do you have to read to know that it’s really good?’ With Nick, it was about a paragraph and a half. The way the book opens, you know, ‘White Mike,’ uh . . .”