Nick McDonell: The Third Brother

As revealed in my short bio in “About the Confidential Attachées” (see the column to the right), I review books on the University Radio whenever I’m not busy studying for my master’s degree, paying the rent by working at my tiresome telemarketing job, or winning body-tequila contests (yes, the latter actually happened to me this Saturday. No, really. I took the first prize in a body-tequila contest. A stranger licked salt off of my collar bone. It’s been a hard, hard weekend for me…). I figured I might as well post some of the reviews I do here on the blog as well. Of course I can only do so with a limited number of my reviews, seeing as a lot of the books I review are merely Danish editions and hold little relevance for our non-Danish readers. Also, I regret that I’m unable to quote directly from the books even when they are originally written in English: The editions I receive from the publishers are all Danish translations of the originals. Nevertheless, here’s a translated rewriting of one of my latest review, a review of Nick McDonell’s novel The Third Brother:

the third brother - nick mcdonell  

This year marked the five-year anniversary of the terror attack on World Trade Center that shook a whole world to its core, and the mourning of the human and cultural losses has already made its way into Western literature, as it has been seen with for instance Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, published last year. The terror attacks also play an important part in a new American novel. The Third Brother by Nick McDonell tells the story of a young New Yorker’s problems while coming of age in a terrorized world. Indeed Nick McDonell seems the right person to be speaking on behalf of young people. At only 22 he’s already the author of two novels; Twelve from 2002, and now The Third Brother, and he has already been announced one of the great talents of his generation. 

In the novel we meet young college-student, Mike, who returns to NYC from an internship in Hong Kong in September 2001  to take care of his mentally unstable older brother as a tragedy strikes his family. However, as much as the story of the two young men, the novel tells the story of their parents. One of the main premises of the novel is that the decadent world where narcotics thrive in the side alleys of Bangkok, where buildings collapse, and where young men suffer from psychoses, couldn’t have appeared out of thin air, and Mike struggles to gain knowledge of the background for all this; of his parents’ generation. For weren’t the brothers’ parents’ and their friends involved in some kind of secret affair? And isn’t Mike’s brother Lyle right when he claims that he and Mike has a third brother?

Mike believes all the answers to these questions to be obtainable in one person, his parents’ old friend with the significant name that creeks ominously in the hinges: Christopher Dorr. Mike knows that Dorr has settled down in Bangkok and he seeks him out during his internship, and in a superbly unsettling scene Mike learns from Dorr that an old friend of Dorr’s, without doubt Mike’s old father, impregnated Dorr’s sister and left her to die in childbirth. The stoned, worn-out middle-aged man tells Mike his disturbing tale while they both watch Dorr’s whining dog give birth to a number of scrawny puppies who suffocate and die on the floor of Dorr’s little hut. It’s a recurring theme in the book, this of the imcompetent parent, here in the shape of a scalded Labrador. The world that Mike’s parents are leaving their sons is a corrupted one, filthy like the floor on which the bitch delivers her perishing puppies, and Mike is unable to escape from the corruption, even when he travels across the world.

Mike’s final breakdown as a result of all this is marked disturbingly by Mike’s homecoming to New York. It’s not the family tragedy that has called him home that the persona deals with in the novel; it’s the national tragedy, the attacks on World Trade Center, and they hold a disturbing symbolic value for the young man. What he finds is that he cannot return to his home either; his entire foundation literally crumbles, before Mike has had the chance to find a new place for himself. It is the hopes of Mike’s childhood and his childish trust in his surroundings that he sees collapsing around him on September 11, and during the heartwrenching descriptions of Mike’s walk through the terrorized New York during that fateful Tuesday, he contemplates wrecked office chairs on the ground with the same mourning as he does the mangled corpses of victims, remembering how he and Lyle used to race carefree down the halls of their father’s office on chairs like that as children, all the while sympathising deeply with the ones who became the first to realize that they had no hope of rescue, and jumped. 

McDonell’s novel is divided into three parts, with the first part dealing with Mike’s stay in Bangkok, and the second revolving around the walk through the terrorized New York. And these two parts are really good. Their strength lies in Mike’s photographic, passive contemplation of his surroundings, his quiet resignation when confronted with the wrecked world in which he finds himself. His diction is admirably precise in these parts, and I really love the at the same time youthfully perceptive and maturely cynical narrative style that McDonell demonstrates in descriptions of dying puppies on floors in Bangkok, and his elegant snapshots of desperations in depictions of collages of heads and shoulders of bus passengers who flee from Ground Zero in collective death anxiety. Such a terrifyingly critical view of the world lies in these matter-of-fact, passive contemplations, that it’s really a shame that McDonell hasn’t chosen to let his novel end after these two first parts.

But he hasn’t, and in the third part we are dragged through the main characters clichéd and bland mourning after the aforementioned family tragedy. The fresh resources of the cynical narrative style of the first two parts are completely lost when McDonell suddenly attempts to make his protagonist sincerely suffering and vulnerable, and as a result the third part is full of worn-out phrases such as “What am I to do with the truth?” and “I don’t know what is wrong with me”, where McDonell’s youthfulness borders on the embarrassing triteness of a teenager’s journal entries.  

This being said, the novel definitely has enough good qualities in its first two parts for me to be intrigued by Nick McDonell, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the author has in store for us in the future. He ought to have years enough ahead of him for cultivating his obvious gift for writing, and I think we have every reason to look out for this young writer.

/marie

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October 23, 2006. Literature, Reviews.

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