Guilty Pleasures

Quiet Street: On American Privilege By Nick McDonell. New York: Pantheon. 144 pages. $26.

The cover of Quiet Street: On American Privilege

IN HIS 1980 ESSAY ON THE AMERICAN SCENE, “Within the Context of No Context,” George W. S. Trow supplies an anecdote from Harvard in the early 1960s. During an art history class on the Dutch masters, a Black student described Rembrandt as “‘belonging’ to the white students in the room.” The white students totally agreed with this. “They acknowledged that they were at one with Rembrandt,” Trow writes. “They acknowledged their dominance. They offered to discuss, at any length, their inherited power to oppress.” 

At the time, the prevailing wisdom was that these students were expressing “white guilt.” A generation later, Trow thinks the prevailing wisdom was wrong. “No,” he writes, “it was white euphoria. Many, many white children of that day felt the power of their inheritance for the first time in the act of rejecting it.” One way to look at Trow’s revision is as a cynical teardown of ’60s idealism: it looked sincere in the moment but was actually just privileged self-indulgence. But guilt and euphoria are fully compatible moods, not mutually exclusive ones. You can usually detect both of them whenever the children of privilege try to describe their own experience. What changes is only the levels of the moods in the mix: depending on the temperament of the person doing the describing, and the cultural context they’re describing from, one of the two will usually dominate.

The early 2000s, for example, were a time of near-guiltless euphoric writing about privileged childhoods in New York City private schools. Gossip Girl #1 came out in April 2002. The debut novel by the writer Nick McDonell came out that January. Set a few blocks south in the same neighborhood, Twelve was a tight thriller about kids who “step carefully to avoid wetting their Jimmy Choo knee-high stiletto boots,” and whose hedonistic winter break comes crashing to a halt when their friend shoots up a party with an Uzi (the title refers to a fictive mix of coke and ecstasy). A success on its own terms, Twelve gives us credibly shallow characters who have no anxiety about their own class position, except that it might not be high enough. If these kids ever talked about Rembrandt “belonging” to them, it would be because their parents collected.

A generation later, guilt has drowned out the euphoria of upper-class entitlement. McDonell frames his new memoir, Quiet Street, as a reckoning with his own privileged upbringing. From the way he describes it, his path has been a gilded one. Twelve was published when McDonell was eighteen years old and newly graduated from Buckley, a private school on East 73rd. As he transparently lays out in Quiet Street, McDonell’s family was connected: his father was editor-in-chief at Esquire; George Plimpton was a frequent household guest. While Twelve became a bestseller and was adapted into a movie, McDonell continued on to Harvard, where none other than Plimpton recommended him to the Porcellian, a club so exclusive that it doesn’t audition anyone on merit—only family connections can get you an interview. And so on.

Journalists have tended to view McDonell’s literary career through the prism of its own glamour: the access to the elite, the early success, and the author’s traditional handsomeness. Which side was he on? Reviewing An Expensive Education, McDonell’s 2009 spin-the-globe espionage novel, the New York Times was unsure whether it analyzed, or just advertised, the Ivy League spies at its center. “Is McDonell a double agent or a triple agent in the class war?” the reviewer asked. McDonell’s reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan raised similar questions. Though the content was critical of the invasion, and had to do partly with civilian casualties, the work McDonell is concerned with in Quiet Street was reported from within the benevolent force field of a US Army embed. Sure, “class treason is an option at all socioeconomic levels,” as Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in 1989. But it’s difficult to make writing into treason. Outside the force field, most of the dead on the American side weren’t McDonell’s peers: statistically, they were the middle class and poor for whom the army is the employer of last resort.

IN EARLY 2020, McDonell decided to volunteer in the morgue of a New York City hospital, thinking he might write a book about it. But as he tells us in the introduction to Quiet Street, subsequent events led him to suffer a crisis of faith in the project. “As the pandemic ebbed in New York, a summer of protests began,” he writes. “The protestors demanded that America reckon with its history of racial and economic injustice, and I marched too, sometimes. I wondered, though, if I had reckoned sufficiently with myself —or, perhaps more important, with the community that had produced me.” This impulse to reckon—literally, to see what one owes—is not unfamiliar among the children of privilege and can express itself in a variety of ways. At the extremes, you have the rare class treasonists (Frederick Engels) and the trite whiners (Prince Harry). McDonell falls at neither extreme, preferring a softer introspection: “I would write about the one percent, among whom I had been raised,” he tells us. “For, rather than experience injustice, I had in many ways been its beneficiary.”

Nick McDonell, 2023. Photo: Roopa Gogineni
Nick McDonell, 2023. Photo: Roopa Gogineni

The benefiting starts with Buckley, an all-boys private day school. There are thirty-three students in his year. Teachers stay in their well-paid jobs for decades. Shirts and ties are required, except for phys ed, which happens in a third-floor gymnasium “fully equipped” with a “high bar, pommel horse, vault, parallel bars, rings, a spring-backed tumbling floor. Also a weight system and a pair of ropes.” Because of the apologetic tone in which McDonell presents these bells and whistles, the reader is invited to scoff at them. But what he’s listed so far—good teachers, small classes, nice athletic facilities—are basically the features of a Northern European public school. So, what’s the problem? In my view, Buckley’s amenities are grotesque not because of some immanent badness but because they should be available universally: they’re privileges when they ought to be rights. Much to his credit, McDonell never pretends to renounce his pleasures—a politically-correct stance that would have tipped the book into disingenuousness. (I have my own internal drama about having gone to Harvard, but I would never pretend the gym wasn’t great.)

Only when we turn from classes to class-training can we finally accept McDonell’s invitation and start shaking our heads at the excess. By the time they turn twenty, Buckley boys may deliver toasts, hunt grouse, read blueprints, ride horses, taste wine, train falcons, play backgammon and tennis and bridge, serve dinner for twenty, buy real estate. Buckley boys can give you a handshake that sends “a message like a snake’s rattle.” They know “how to ask a favor from a chief of staff”—which in the world of the one percent does not mean the president’s right-hand man but the person who oversees domestic servants in a mansion. They also betray the elite’s obsession with believing themselves to be everymen: they are supposed to be able to charm a plumber as well as a Senator, to “appreciate Taylor Swift as well as Tchaikovsky.” Buckley boys are learning how to conduct themselves in a manner commensurate with their class position.

Then comes summer vacation. Long afternoons at the Devon Yacht Club, “trapezing over whitecaps.” At Devon, don’t try to pay with cash: write your membership number on “a chit with a small pencil.” (Readers of Emma Cline’s The Guest will recall that the narrator, a twenty-two-year-old sex worker, dines out on this trick at a beach club in the Hamptons.) When it’s time to leave New York, hunting is a good option: “Stags in Scotland, quail in Georgia, bonefish in the Bahamian flats.” Or maybe off to Lamu, an island in Kenya, to check out one of the “most expensive hotels.”

Still, it’s no fun if you’re alone. All the stops are pulled out when it comes to dating. “Candlelit yoga in Ubud, Bali; sport fishing on Bristol Bay, Alaska; eating out of a silver dog bowl in Berlin’s KitKatClub at the direction of a dominatrix; sex in a tuxedo in London’s locked Cadogan gardens. Or just packed with the friend group around a marble bar in the West Village, drinking a few twenty-dollar cocktails, laughing about whatever was trending on Netflix.” That last one sounds so bland it’s almost touching, but otherwise—not bad. And if the courtship culminates in marriage, give this a try: ceremony “in a coed arts club, the Century”; evening reception “at a men’s club, The Brook.” The pleasures of the weddings are tactile: “the grain of starched white tablecloths, the chilled Sancerre, the massive arrangements of calla lilies.”

After the yoga and the starched cloth, it might be time to have babies at “the world’s finest hospitals.” Then it’s off to the country house in Connecticut, Wyoming, or Maine. When all that’s over, you can expect the midlife crises and divorces. Some of this material is just the familiar folkways of the Eastern Seaboard aristocracy, known to anyone who has read, say, George Being George, the oral history by Plimpton’s friends: fireworks in the Hamptons and literary parties in Manhattan, tennis matches and private clubs. But some of the anecdotes are crazier than that. My favorite character is the spurned wife who calls a swat team on her ex-husband’s wedding to his new girlfriend. Then comes the funeral, where a Buckley boy can “confidently deliver a eulogy.”

McDonell is especially good at finding the lies behind his younger self’s illusions. The fine manners, he realizes, conceal class violence. The obsession with fairness on the athletic field seems like an attempt to deny the unfairness of the economic system that put the players there in the first place. McDonell is unsparing, too, about the social customs of the boys he grew up with: their unthinking mimicry of a Hollywood representation of Black American culture (calling each other “dawg” and “gangster”); their casual racism to their non-white peers. In one of the book’s strongest passages, McDonell takes himself to task for having called an Indian friend “darkie,” in what he thinks must have been a stab at humor. “I knew the word was taboo but had taken to using it,” he writes, “making jokes about ‘the jungle,’ imitating her father’s accent.”

The tone of that sentence is clear: it’s lucid self-reproach. But what do you make of the tone of these two, from the chapter on vacations: “These holidays began long before college and were miraculous gifts. They recharged us, gave us new dreams, probably increased our life expectancies.” When I first read this, I assumed it was ironic: it sounds like a vacation brochure that a ridiculous bourgeois would peruse in a Michel Houellebecq novel. But then, if we do read that as irony, what do we do with this bit, only a few paragraphs later:

There were other prices [to the holidays], vast costs—genocide, rape, pillage—borne by whole other communities, that, by the end of their educations, one percenters knew about but often ignored or spun to their advantage.

The irony is gone, replaced by a kind of apology in which Trow, one feels, might sniff out a bit of grandiosity. These kids must be very powerful to be responsible for genocide, rape, and pillage every time they take a vacation.

The vacillation in these moments—between grandiosity and remorse—is probably inherent to the project. McDonell is trying to write from two distinct urges, to confess his own feelings and to expose the lives of others. The confessional material is the strongest, because McDonell is willing to deny himself the protections of privacy. He tells us how much he made for this book, the insider baseball that led to his first novel being published, how much he has in stocks, the price of his house. In these passages, McDonell is getting something out of his system, trying to unburden himself of his class guilt. Remember Elif Batuman’s 2010 essay “Get a Real Degree,” which observed that rich white kids in MFA programs were “finding their voices” by writing in the voices of the “non-white, non-college-educated, non-middle or upper-class” (a Vietnamese woman raped by an American soldier e.g.)? Quiet Street is the exact opposite of that.

But when McDonell switches from getting something out of his system to trying to expose the system, I occasionally feel the edge of his perception going dull. Exposure requires a different animating force than confession: you have to be willing to piss people off. As a journalist, McDonell knows this, but I don’t think there’s much in Quiet Street that would ruffle the feathers of its own subjects—let alone pluck them bare. In some chapters, there’s a coyness that is hard to square with the mission. No names are named that aren’t already in the media, leaving the subjects encased in a tactful anonymity. 

Quiet Street’s hesitancy to stick in the knife is paradoxically one of its most honest qualities. For the past few years, there have been calls for writers like McDonell to speak from their own subjectivity, rather than write the stories of others. McDonell is aware of this, worrying that if he executes his book about his time as a volunteer in the hospital morgue, he will be “profiteering” off the experiences of the working class. But the subject position of a “one percenter” is a lonely place to practice identity politics. This is one reason that novels about private schools are conventionally narrated by scholarship students: most readers are on that side. And because the outsider needs to observe almost as a matter of survival, his gaze sharpens to a point. The Secret History wouldn’t work nearly as well if we didn’t see the story through Richard Papen’s desirous, skeptical eyes.

McDonell is trying to be both Papen and the rich students Papen writes about. It’s similar to Fitzgerald’s predicament after he published This Side of Paradise, and a Princeton professor wrote him to criticize his cynical depiction of Ivy League snobbishness. Don’t worry, Fitzgerald wrote back; he still loved his alma mater. “The undergraduates of Yale and Princeton are cleaner, healthier, better-looking, better dressed, wealthier and more attractive than any undergraduate body in the country,” he wrote. (He appears to be serious.)

I can never remember what happens in Paradise, but I will always remember how the Princeton kids, out on a lark, stop for lunch at a Long Island hotel. The bill is eight dollars; the carefree Kerry throws down two. Won’t they get in trouble, cautious Amory asks? “No,” says Kerry. “For a minute he’ll think we’re the proprietor’s sons or something; then he’ll look at the check again and call the manager, and in the meantime—.” In the meantime, they’ll be gone.

There’s an anecdote in Twelve that I would nominate as the 2002 version of this classic. It’s an anecdote, in fact, that reappears in different form in Quiet Street. Here is the first version, about a teenager in Twelve:

Tobias is beautiful. Not quite effeminate, just beautiful. Tobias is a part-time model. There is a famous story about him too. It’s about how when Tobias was twelve, he took a shit in his bed just so the maid would have to clean it up. Tobias bragged about it the next day at school.

And here it is twenty years later:

The wealth is not a secret, nor the inevitable violent decadence. I remember a schoolmate who bragged about defecating in bed so the maid would have to clean it up. Such behavior extended to the highest reaches of power, as was clear in President Trump’s casual sexism and violence. One of his children and one of his grandchildren attended the same school as I and the aforementioned defecator.

The earlier version doesn’t confuse me at all: I know exactly how it wants me to respond. I’m meant to be titillated, and I am, by the nasty behavior and the unpretentious profanity. The second version sets up different expectations. Knowing I’m reading nonfiction, I can’t forget that this kid is a real person, part of a cohort of real people, who have grown up and taken their places in the American power structure. And so the passage arouses an acute curiosity. Yes, it’s worthwhile to hear that Buckley boys could be sadistic toward their maids. But wouldn’t it be juicier to learn which private-equity firms the most sadistic ones now run?

Jesse Barron is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. He lives in Los Angeles. 

Editor’s note: This article has been revised to clarify the fact that McDonell did not report from Iraq and Afghanistan solely as an embedded journalist with the US Army.