An Expensive Education
John le Carré, Frederick Forsyth, and Robert Littell have no need to worry that Nick McDonell has reinvented the spy novel for the post-post-Cold War, text-messaging generation. McDonell--the 2007 Harvard University grad who debuted at 17 with 2002's Twelve, which chronicles the teenage decadence of affluent New Yorkers, and followed it up with 2005's The Third Brother, about an intern reporter in Thailand--dips his feet into the global espionage game with An Expensive Education. And while it's effortlessly readable and entertainingly plotted, it lacks the steely intelligence and moral ambiguity that defines the best of the genre.
When the book opens Harvard professor Susan Lowell has just won a Pulitzer for her work on an African rebel group, whose leader, Hatashil, remains a thorn in the side of African governments. The Pulitzer only bolsters her already prominent campus reputation--she's attractive, well-liked, and her intellectual zeal is contagious, which is what David, an undergraduate who hails from the African region where Lowell did her research, appreciates about her. She's part of what Harvard symbolizes for the immigrant: access to information and sectors of American society hitherto unreachable by people like him, and all David has to do to share in that comfort is become adept at talking their university talk and walking their socioeconomic walk.
But strange things are afoot back in Africa, which Harvard grad turned clandestine government operative Michael Teak witnesses firsthand when a remote rebel base camp is bombed shortly after he arrives there. Soon, news agencies--even the Harvard Crimson, where David's well-to-do white girlfriend, Jane, writes--are leaking information dispelling the version of events as described by Lowell in her Pulitzer-winning book, and even trying to taint her reporting as false. Soon, Lowell's journalist friend Razi Farmian begins to hear the rumbles of misinformation coming out of his former sources in Africa. Teak begins to wonder how his handlers fit into what's going on. And David's social-climbing aspirations become entangles into political machinations, whether he realizes it or not.
McDonell obviously knows that the cultures of Ivy League entitlement, CIA recruiting, and political power overlap sometimes entirely too cozily, and his plotting of behind-the-scenes Cambridge brokering feel reportorial. He's less convincing with his African adventures, though his two best creations here--Teak and the Iranian reporter Razi--do feel informed by the itinerant life of the entry-level spy/freelance reporter. The problem is that McDonell doesn't successfully intertwine his two expensive educations--David's at Harvard and Teak's in the field--and without that barbed parallel, the novel is but a time-killing page turner.