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.
“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 …”
“ ‘… 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.
One night at Harvard, McDonell and I were up at the bar getting drinks for his friends, talking about how their concerns are slightly different from his because they haven’t yet been initiated into the kind of ego frenzy that is the corollary to a professional life. I felt momentarily and inexplicably maternal—he is only 21—so I told him that everybody worries they don’t deserve what they have sometimes, that all of us occasionally fear our best selves are illusions.
He looked me straight in the eye. “I’m not a fraud,” he said. “I’m worried about not getting a fair shake because I’ve had so many advantages. But I’m not worried I can’t deliver. I know I can write.”
As an experiment, I tried to hate him for a second. But the only feeling I could locate was envy.
Nick’s father, Sports Illustrated managing editorMorgan Entrekin
Nick’s publisher at Grove Press, and godfather of Nick’s younger brother, ThomasGeorge Plimpton
McDonell family friend and adviserHunter Thompson
Godfather of ThomasJoan Didion
McDonell literary acquaintance