In the three years since Nick McDonell published his debut novel, Twelve, written when he was only eighteen, his fiction has grown considerably more expansive in both outlook and ambition. Where Twelve confined itself to familiar adolescent transgressions on Manhattan's Upper East Side, McDonell's sophomore effort, The Third Brother, spans the globe, taking on September 11 and America's uncertain place in the world.
The protagonist, Mike, a Harvard undergraduate interning at a news magazine,
is sent by his editor to Bangkok to find Christopher Dorr, a prize-winning reporter gone native. The stage is set for a Conradian quest, but this Marlow is only vaguely interested in tracking down his Kurtz; he prefers instead to find out "how much trouble a white kid from New York can get into." The ensuing scenes—Western backpackers and narco-tourists falling into dissolution—are the least compelling in the book, and it comes as a relief to find Mike finally sitting down with Dorr. Unfortunately, McDonell seems to have tired of the whole enterprise by then: Dorr gives up his secrets in less than a page, and a deus ex machina sweeps our hero stateside.
In the second and strongest section of the book, Mike—conveniently transferred from Harvard to Columbia—searches for his brother on the morning of September 11. McDonell makes the sound decision to eschew theorizing about the attacks in favor of providing a harrowing representation of what that day was like for those who survived it. There has been no shortage of September 11–themed novels of late, but few have tackled that day as directly as The Third Brother does. While one comes almost to admire the dogged literal-mindedness at work, it seems driven by a strange notion of literary honesty: Rather than make September 11 the germ of a novel, McDonell simply puts the events on the page with as much realism as he can muster, as though being artful in this situation were an act of evasion—and he's almost right. But his method is also flagrantly sentimental, inasmuch as it relies exclusively on unearned emotion for its power. Paradoxically, this leads to the book's best moments, because his more imaginative efforts, while better in theory, don't actually pan out.
Narrative expediency then brings Mike back to Harvard, where the book ends.
A shift in point of view, from third person to first, is intended, à la Ian McEwan's Atonement, to give added depth to the preceding pages. While this shift is only partly successful, the effort—McDonell's desire to find a form that does justice to the event—is a welcome sign. Unfortunately, similar attempts are little in evidence elsewhere in the book. The Third Brother, like Twelve, is written in short chapters—from one line to just a few pages. In the middle section, this form provides the same frenetic propulsion that gave Twelve its power. More often, though, it suggests an unwillingness or inability to sustain a scene. Several times—as when Mike sits down with Christopher Dorr—we are brought to the edge of a seemingly important moment that is then either hurried or elided. Because this novel is more ambitious than its predecessor, it suffers more from its lack of connective tissue; McDonell has considerably broadened his intention but not his method, and the novel retains the air of an apprentice endeavor. Ultimately, his fiction excites less through what it delivers than what it promises for its author's future.