What immediately strikes the reader upon picking up Nick McDonell's first novel, Twelve, is that the publisher was able to wrangle a cover blurb from reclusive gonzo giant Hunter S. Thompson. That Dr. Thompson postponed his own important workłthat of ingesting LSD and firing large calibre tracer bullets at the empty Jim Beam bottles lining his fencełin order to read McDonell's book and then dictate a message to a courageous assistant is in itself impressive. What makes Thompson's efforts all the more notable is that they're in service of praising an author who is only eighteen years old.
McDonell, a native New Yorker, sets his tale in that city, and has us follow the misadventures and existential crisis of his young protagonist, White Mikeła straight, teetotalling drug dealer fresh out of high school who buys his product in Harlem and flips it to a rich clientele on Park Avenue. Haunted by the death of his mother from cancer, and unable to relate to the absentee father with whom he sometimes shares an apartment, he navigates the spaces between decaying ghettos and gleaming high-rises, brokering deals and making deliveries.
White Mike's customers are private school kids whose parents are on permanent vacation elsewhere, members of a leisure class who have nose jobs and disposable incomes and great chasms of boredom in their lives that White Mike fills with chemical joy. As he himself quite astutely notes, they're "soft kids trying to get some weed, have some fun, fill the time, talk a certain way, walk a certain way, be a certain way because the way they come from is uncertain and unclear and uncool and with no direction, because no one really has anything to do, so they all do the same thing . . . and everyone wants and wants and wants."
One of White Mike's customers is Jessica, a teenaged, social-climbing party girl who has graduated from pot to a new synthetic drug on the streets called Twelve. Near the beginning of the novel, White Mike makes the mistake of introducing her to his wholesaler, Lionel, a killer who dwells in a filthy, desperate New York that she has never known. Jessica's use of Twelve takes off, and when her money runs out, she submits to a type of defilement that Lionel is only too eager to exploit. In the closing chapters, White Mike suffers a crisis of conscience over what he has wrought, and goes to find Jessica, intent on her salvation and his own.
McDonell's prose is cool and emotionally distant. His sentences are mostly short and declarative, with a potent effect on the eye and mind as they are read in quick succession. He has a keen ear for the urban patois of his peers, and his pop culture references are up to the minute. His story is best read rapidly and in a single session; his terrific pacing sweeps the reader up and practically keelhauls him or her through a sea of angst and depravity to the story's conclusion. But it is at this conclusion where disappointment awaits.
The ending is a bloodbath, a tacked-on bit of ultraviolence that, I suppose, is meant to make us puzzle over the monstrousness of the act and the nihilism of its participants and come to the conclusion that adolescents do bad things when they are bored and neglected. It's a narrative non sequitur, though, an act whose motivations fail to materialize in the characterizations he's cultivated, and it's not all that shocking, besides. For those of us who have seen movies like Larry Clark's Kids or Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, the story of dangerously amoral, self-destructive youths is a familiar one. For those of us who have seen the CNN footage of two angry, estranged boys in Columbine randomly eradicating their classmates and teachers at school before turning the guns on themselves, this seems derivative, sensational, and little else.
Hunter S. Thompson says of McDonell: "His trick is he writes the truth. I'm afraid he will do for his generation what I did for mine." That's a bold statement, and a largely unfounded one. While Thompson's legacy looms large in American letters, McDonell's future impact remains uncertain. That he writes the truth is not enough; he has to explore regions of it that aren't so well-trod, advance a version of it that moves beyond the merely lurid into something truly, intellectually, provocative. Twelve falls short of being a masterwork in every way, but it's competent enough to elude some status as a mere curiosity. Consider it a harbinger of great novels to come, if and when McDonell's maturity and good judgement catch up to his talent. ņ