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Wonder Boy Spins a Dark Tale

Drugs, violence and self-indulgent Manhattan teens populate 'Twelve'

July 28, 2002|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — The teen Tolstoy and his friends are at the Skyline Diner, their favorite place on the Upper East Side to hog a booth for a couple of hours. But this July afternoon while Juliet and Jeff and the others eat eggs, and smirk back at Nick McDonell, he is giving an interview about his first novel, "Twelve," a tale of debauched Manhattan preppies.

His promoters say McDonell is a voice of a new generation.

McDonell just says he is one lucky 18-year-old.

"I just sort of had an itch, so I wrote," he says, peering through shaggy bangs to check for reaction. "I didn't want to expose private schools or make a statement. I had an idea for a story and, you know, what do you do? It's a question in the book: What do you do? I write, is what I do, you know, that's how I get control."

How he got published has to do with his upbringing.

McDonell's godfathers are writers Hunter S. Thompson and P.J. O'Rourke; writer-actor George Plimpton is a mentor; his publisher, Morgan Entrekin at Grove/Atlantic, met him when he was 2 days old; his mother, Joan McDonell, is a novelist; and father Terry McDonell is a well-regarded editor who has headed many magazines, including Esquire and Outside, and now runs Sports Illustrated.

At 16, Nick McDonell broke his leg playing basketball and, thus, began his literary career. In the 40 days he was laid up--"very biblical, you know?"--he started a magazine at his private school and outlined a novel. After two issues, including one about violence, the magazine died, but danger and blood seeped into the novel, which McDonell fleshed out over the next summer in the Hamptons at his mom's beach house.

In short order, McDonell let his parents and younger brother, Tom, read it; gave it to Entrekin; was edited; and had an advance copy of his book before his senior prom. About a week after June graduation, McDonell received his first major (positive) review in advance of its release last week, and he's now touring 16 U.S. cities and two foreign countries with a publicist, giving new meaning to the work of a chaperon. He starts Harvard in the fall.

So what is left for the boy?

Cranky, middle-aged observers might caution about such early success, of comparisons to Joyce and Hemingway, nevermind a lesser light like Bret Easton Ellis, who similarly portrayed dissolute teens in Los Angeles and then faded away. And Joyce Maynard was 18 when she was hailed as the voice of the 1970s generation, but turned out not to be.

McDonell's response is a verbal shiver: "I hear ya."

Whatever the publishing world and its hyperactive publicity machine have planned for McDonell, he has his own ideas that predate "Twelve." Since forever he has been listening to his parents' writer friends describe travels and has dreamed of being a foreign correspondent, filing from "far-flung continents."

"I believe in the journalist-adventurer, going out and telling the truth, doing all that stuff. That's naive and ridiculous, but I really bought into it, especially when I was younger."

In the immediate future, McDonell craves dorm life.

"I'm just looking forward to living with a lot of people my own age," he says. "Especially after this summer, which is going to be with a lot of old people, well, older people."

Again, McDonell is 18. He is also 6 feet tall, handsome with imperfect skin, stylish in a T-shirt, sweetly self-conscious, articulate and unnervingly mature in his self-possession and sophistication. He reads a lot and is toting Saul Bellow's "The Adventures of Augie March." He got a B-minus in Advanced Placement writing. His parents are divorced. He is devoted to his brother, and cares what his friends think of him, tensing when pal Jeff Deutchman, on his way out of the Skyline, is asked for a comment.

"Nick?" says Deutchman, with a sly smile, "He's a looker."

The back booth is breaking up now. Deutchman, a budding filmmaker already attending Northwestern, is off to a summer office job. Juliet Lapidos follows, but first the comparative literature major at Yale offers a critique of "Twelve."

She shuffles her foot in and out of a flip-flop and begins: "Well, when I read 'Twelve,' I was still at school and I read it over the course of about a week and I was reading 'War and Peace' simultaneously. So it's not exactly fair because you should compare people to authors who are writing at the same times as they are...."

Yes, but did she like the novel?

Definitely, she says. Still, she raises a question similar to that of reviewers who found merit in the book's writing ("brisk authority," said one) and the characters compelling but wonder how the author's age should be weighted in their assessments.

"I do think it's hard to put [McDonell's age] out of mind," Lapidos says. " 'War and Peace' is good, timeless, regardless of who Tolstoy was. Hopefully, the same will be true of 'Twelve,' but it's impossible for me to say."

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