The Third Brother
Nick McDonell’s sophomore effort, The Third Brother, is a brisk, quickly paced read—and that is meant as no compliment. After garnering considerable acclaim for his best-selling 2003 debut, Twelve, expectations were enormous for the now-21-year-old Harvard student. And while he doesn’t fall flat on his face here, McDonell leaves much to be desired, if only because he demonstrates in snippets a talent in accordance with his own hype.
Divided into three sections, The Third Brother chronicles the life of Mike, an affluent white lad from New York (much like the author), who, despite his privilege, is embroiled in a life of dysfunction. In many ways it is yet another novel of quiet upper-class desperation.
The first part of the book places the Harvard-bred lad in Bangkok as an intern for a news magazine assigned to gather quotes from backpacking stoners and discover a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has been “missing” in Thailand for years. After involving himself in several misadventures, Mike gets word from his editor that his parents have died in a house fire, abruptly ending the book’s leading third and segueing into its second, in which Mike’s older brother Lyle hallucinates (or does he?) about a third brother who he blames for setting the house ablaze. Mike leaves Harvard to tend to his brother and attend Columbia with his longtime girlfriend, Jane, from whom he hides his secret dalliance with a dead Thai hooker, Tweety, who continues to haunt him.
And then the events of Sept. 11, 2001, unfold. When the twin towers fall, Mike searches for his brother to ensure his safety. Upon finding him, Lyle divulges secrets about their parents’ death that sparks another tragedy.
In the final 40 or so pages, McDonell abandons the omniscient, third-person narrative employed in the first two parts and Mike becomes narrator. McDonell is at his very best when using this device, and it supplies some substance behind his hype. Mike is finally portrayed as a living, breathing character, and not simply as an archetype, becoming interesting and worth our attention. Unfortunately, McDonell fails to give him life in the previous two-thirds of the novel, making you wonder if the book was rushed. With so much possible depth, McDonell only offers a brief glimpse.