One of last year’s notable releases, was Nick McDonell’s debut novel Twelve. It has just been released in paperback, and reading it for the first time, it feels wrong to tell a 17-year-old that his debut novel isn’t going to change the world. Not to fear, most generation-defining books are not debuts; they are more likely to be written in the author’s personal December, than May.
Nick McDonell wrote Twelve when he was 17—the one-sentence author note says he was born in New York City in 1984. (For obvious reasons it omitted that his godfather is the publisher Morgan Entrekin, head of Grove Atlantic; his father is a well-heeled vet of Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, and Esquire; and his mother is a novelist in her own right). Despite copious press when it was published, Nick Denton is not the voice of his generation, although a dozen pages into his book, I was really rooting for him.
Easily identifiable as an offspring of The Basketball Diaries and Less Than Zero, Twelve is the story of rich, bored, recreational-drug-using high school kids on Christmas break in New York City. There’s the triumvirate of violence, sex, and drugs but, ultimately, very little for the reader to get high about. The issue isn’t that the story isn’t involving, but rather that, like the movie “Kids,” Twelve wants to present a pocket of life that begins and ends without catharsis or validation.
It’s hard to tell if the novel is a condemnation of these kids’ lives or not. No one is held accountable really and McDonnel doesn’t pass judgment on any but the obviously deserving. And whether it’s supposed to be a portrayal of Generation X or Y is anyone’s guess. The characters instead remain simply empty, harrowing urban youths.
You can almost hear its more naïve admirers saying, “It’s just like life. No one does anything. There’s never redemption of change in life, there’s just life.” Letting alone the juvenile idea that no one changes through the course of a life, a book must offer some form of change, either for its characters or its readers. But when the reader has so little invested in Twelve‘s flat, emotionless characters, it’s a fast and easy read - similar to watching Thursday night sitcoms. When you come out the other end of two hours, you immediately forget what you just saw. There’s no reason to remember, because another one just like the last one is waiting in the wings to whisk you away to oblivion.
The novel centers on White Mike, a rich Upper East Side New Yorker. White Mike deals drugs and does little else, though he occasionally mentions his father, an absent resteraunteur, and reminisces about his mother who passed away from cancer when he was young. The story is a series of vaguely connected kids going to various house parties but waiting for New Years Eve’s big throw down. They all orbit Mike, buying drugs from him, dying on him, or just being hot girls he has no interest in. White Mike is a troubled, sensitive Camus-reading protagonist who is headed for Harvard and sees the beauty others miss—in skateboarders and homeless men to name just two. “White Mike is a thinker, his teacher said” though it would be more accurate to call him a brooder. The character is drawn loose like the trench coat he wears sauntering around the rarified upper echelons of Manhattan and answering pages from kids wanting weed or the mysterious and powerful new drug Twelve.
The book breezes past its cast so swiftly, it does no one any harm to simply list off the supporting players here. Just remember, everyone is rich, even though there are gradations of rich; and all the girls are beautiful, though there are gradations of this as well. Jessica gets hooked early on Twelve; Timmy and Mark Rothko are white boys playing black and act as comic relief; Chris and Claude are brothers who have almost no real relationship; Hunter is White Mike’s friend; Molly is just hot; Charlie is White Mike’s cousin; Sven is an advice-giving chess player . . . never mind, it doesn’t matter who these people are. They are just excuses for getting to the sensationalized and out-of-nowhere-and-for-no-reason ending. As two characters say during a party near the novel’s end, “Whatev.” “Whatev?” “Word.”
Oh, and White Mike’s dead mom is a saint.
And there’s a few murders stemming from drug dealings.
And a there’s crazy guy who buys lots of Asian weapons.
We’re supposed to feel bad for these kids because their parents are never around, and even if they were they probably wouldn’t be of use anyway. We’re told in two instances that the elders are just as morally depraved and economically spoiled as their offspring. A passage about on a party Sara’s grandmother threw illustrates:
“This party was so wild, kids really were swinging from chandeliers, and the place got totally trashed. Cops came from two counties, and eight or nine boys from Yale and Columbia were arrested. The story was on the cover of Life magazine. Sara’s mother was born nine months later.”
McDonell does have a nice writing style. It is crisp, clean, and driven by contemporary language. He catches the inflections and slang of how high schoolers talk, think, and act. By no means is it a pop culture book like Generation X or even American Psycho, but McDonell knows what’s pop-culture cool: James Taylor and reggae are not; Jimmy Choo and Prada are. He mocks “wiggas,” and his characters play video games and watch plasma-screen TVs. But although he drops some name brands and addresses, the author assumes the readers are familiar with the world his characters inhabit. The Upper East Side, though, is elusive and foreign to even those of us who live in New York City, and he fails to bring us in deep enough with him to feel anything but contempt for these spoiled individuals.
McDonell’s present-tense prose is broken up by passages of italicized flashbacks that are vivid and telling, and the frequent short paragraph-long chapters are indeed nice flashes of prose. They take quick shots at something (an aside between two characters; personal egotistical musings) that are illuminated and strengthened by being so separated.
“It is very late when Chris goes to the bathroom and finds Jessica passed out on the floor by the toilet. He looks at her for a long time. Jessica is his friend, but he never gets to stare at a live girl like this. He likes it.”
While McDonell’s prose is blisteringly fast and sometimes beautifully rendered—the first paragraph is “White Mike is thin and pale like smoke”—his plots and profundity are as wispy as that very same smoke. He also occasionally lets his omniscient narrator assume the voice of the character he is describing, which is confusing and naïve of him. For example, in describing Sara, the narrator says, “Sarah Ludlow is the hottest girl at her school by, like, a lot.” It doesn’t serve the story to slip in and out of narrative voices like this, especially with the novel’s swirling cast of characters and it’s already dead-on passages of dialogue setting nice tones and characterizations.
This slim volume can be read in an afternoon. It is a beach read (though perhaps a little more bleak than a more traditional potboiler), and it hardly takes a breath as it races to its climax. For that reason, it should be read, if only to witness that clichéd thing that is “a writer to look out for.” While the Hunter S. Thompson jacket blurb quips, “I’m afraid [Nick McDonell] will do for his generation what I did for mine” is almost certain not to occur (due mostly to the climate of McDonell’s generation, not faults of his own), McDonell will hopefully become a powerful and stirring writer, once he lets his characters do more than allow events to simply happen to them. He needs to allow them to cause events too, otherwise the reader is left as empty as the mansions these kids live roam through. The disappointment you’re left with after reading Twelve is undoubtedly the same that good parents (if there were any here) would feel if these were their kids.