“ ‘. . . pale like smoke,’ ” Terry McDonell says, finishing the first sentence of his first son’s first book.
“Great line,” says Entrekin.
“When he was little, we thought of him as an athlete . . . very promising, broad jumping a long way,” says McDonell. “Then he had a bad injury to his knee at a big track meet. That changed his life. He began writing that summer, and his mother saw a good bit of it at the beach, and then back in town he began to show it to me and I thought it was great. I think he was surprised by his success—like his hair was on fire. Every time he picked up the paper, someone was writing something about how he was not worthy and . . . ”
“That’s not true,” Entrekin says, “that was like 1 or 2 percent.”
“But I think the ability to deal with success comes from . . . ”
“From his character!” Entrekin shouts.
“Yes. It’s his character.”
“Character,” Entrekin repeats, and orders another Pinot Grigio. “If you’re 35 or 45 or 55, you don’t really envy a 21-year-old athlete, who is physically at their prime,” he goes on. “Somebody who’s 35 or 45 years old who’s a magazine writer and/or editor doesn’t really aspire to be an athlete . . . You might admire them, but it’s not something you’re tryin’ to do. With a writer it’s what they’re trying to do, ya see? It’s a very different psychology. Think about that!”
Well, there is envy, and then there is reality. The reality is that with Twelve, McDonell was a teenage boy writing a lyrical, uncannily precise account of a world he knew inside and out. But with The Third Brother, he has attempted to write a grand novel, a dark family saga complete with murders and suicides and international intrigue, and it’s a stretch. There’s a certain amount of crypto-macho bullshit: “Pay attention to the weather, Mike thinks, as he walks between Bridget and Burton. This is what his father always said. Weather makes you smarter, weather doesn’t lie, weather is real.” What? And McDonell has a kind of crush on violence as a narrative device—it was true in Twelve, too, but it’s intensified here. He’s at his least convincing when he’s at his most gruesome.
But there is some great stuff, too. The pacing, for example, is perfect. His descriptions of various things—the cafés on Khao San Road; the desperate yearning of the young for independence, experience, and drugs—are visceral and stirring. At times he achieves actual unsettling suspense. Without question, Nick McDonell has other things a writer needs besides a publisher: voice and talent. Which doesn’t change the fact that there are plenty of people as talented as he is, some more so, who won’t succeed because they don’t have his confidence or his connections. So it goes on planet Earth.
When I see Nick McDonell again, it’s at a dive bar in Alphabet City, near the apartment he’s signed a one-year lease on. He’s got a balcony with a “little sliver of sky,” and a room for Tom-O, and McDonell plans to use it as a place to come home to senior year. His mother will probably sell the house where he grew up on the Upper East Side by the end of the summer and move to Long Island.
McDonell had fun at Entrekin’s wedding, and he’s looking forward to a two-week safari he’s taking with Terry and Tom-O to Tanzania and Kenya, but mostly he’s enjoying his summer internship at the Daily News. “I really like reporting,” he says. “I feel like I’m getting a really humbling education.” His hair is shorter, he’s wearing a formal striped shirt and khakis, and he looks younger—a freshman at life instead of a big man on campus.
Through reporting, he tells me, he has learned about how journalism is itself a kind of fiction. This past week, he’s been on assignment in Howard Beach. “When the Daily News ran their story HOWARD BEACH BIAS ATTACK, the day after they sent me out there to see what was happening. But what was happening was a response to the press. Then the next day they send someone else out to get the response to that, to see if it was ‘escalating.’ So you know, in terms of our interview, I can be envied, I can be handsome, I can be ugly, but we’re producing our own myths here.”
Lately he’s been toying with the idea of taking advantage of all this, of becoming “a weird celebrity man of letters—like Plimpton—because those ‘Page Six’ items? Maybe my life would get better if I gave into that instead of avoiding it.” He winces. “But then I can’t imagine George or Hunter or Cormac saying something like that.” He means Plimpton, Thompson, McCarthy.