EIGHTEEN-YEAR-OLD Nick McDonell's debut novel, Twelve (Grove Press, 2002), is a funereal glimpse at the kind of overprivileged, under-loved Manhattan adolescents who, when home on break from tony New England prep schools, channel their gushing cash flow toward drug-fueled bacchanals in palatial, parent-free townhouses. In the terse chapters of his dizzying, almost stroboscopic narrative, McDonell uses evocative prose, peppered with teenage turns-of-phrase, to describe characters who, for all their moneyed arrogance, look to be living lives of quiet desperation. There's White Mike, a clean-living and piercingly observant drug dealer whose profession has him moving like a shade between Harlem poverty and Upper East Side privilege. Jessica, a gorgeous student-athlete, has developed a dangerous yen for twelve, the designer drug from which the novel takes its title. Mark Rothko, a dim, trash-talking, FUBU-wearing twerp, earns his arty sobriquet after body-slamming a classmate into the painting Untitled (Number 12) on a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For most of Twelve's callow characters, existence consists of little more than a ceaseless quest to get high and a sublimated but ultimately cataclysmic urge toward violence.
Having grown up in New York City and attended some of its better private schools, McDonell is not unacquainted with people like these. Neither, despite his tender age, is he a stranger to the bright lights of big-city publishing. His father, Terry, is a former editor of Esquire who currently helms Sports Illustrated. Grove/Atlantic publisher Morgan Entrekin is a close family friend, as are literary luminaries like Jay McInerney, Joan Didion, and Hunter S. Thompson (who, blurbing Twelve, says McDonell's "ratio of age to talent is horrifying ... I'm afraid he will do for his generation what I did for mine"). Not surprisingly, some observers carp that the first-time author is trading on advantages and connections that few writers his age could even dream of. When reached at home in Manhattan, McDonell, who will enter Harvard in September, admits that there's truth to that, but he's also confident that his work stands on its own merits. We're inclined to agree.
Q: Given your age and your subject matter, you've been compared to writers like Jim Carroll and Bret Easton Ellis. Did you set out to write your generation's Less Than Zero? Or did you just write what you know?
A: I just wrote what I knew. I didn't set out with any intentions at all, to tell you the truth. I didn't even set out knowing I was gonna write this novel. I've been writing for a long time, because I went to excellent schools in New York. One of the things they emphasize is essay writing, so I was required to write constantly. And both my parents are writers and editors. I grew up surrounded by books, and the culture I came from was always concerned with writing and journalism. The romance of it always sort of seized me. I always wrote realism and stuff, realistic portrayals of the place I was growing up in.
Q: How much of Twelve is autobiographical? You're a well-off teen who went to a prep school and lives in New York. Do you see yourself as anything like these kids?
A: I tend not to. One of the reasons I'm proud of the book is that none of the characters are based on my friends. I mean, this is really fiction. You cannot name somebody, then name their [corresponding] character. Obviously there are parts of me in it, and the places are real, but it's really all about the myths of the place I grew up in, all of the anecdotes and things I've seen growing up here for 18 years.
Q: The picture you paint is pretty bleak. Are you really that pessimistic about kids today?
A: To tell you the truth, I don't think I am. I think it's a failing of the book that I was not able to capture all the joy and the happiness and the good things about growing up in this place. Like going to these schools and the Met and Central Park. There are great things about growing up as a rich kid in New York. But it's a hard thing to write a really smart, well-rounded portrait of a generation. It's easy, and I think I fell into this trap a little bit, to paint the darker picture.
Q: But you do have a scene in the Met, and a kid gets shoved into a Mark Rothko painting. What does that say? Are you jaded, cynical?
A: I try to think of myself as not jaded, because I'm frankly really glad I grew up here. But, yeah, I do think the place I come from is a little fucked up. I'm unprepared to articulate a particular malaise for my entire rarefied world, but I do think there's a problem of violence flowing through the undercurrent of the culture. Part of that comes out of boredom, part of it comes from parents who want to be young, and therefore their kids don't know exactly what to do. I think - and this is why the comparison is made to Less Than Zero - it has to do with spiritual debilitation and boredom and the weirdness of American culture at the end of the 20th century.
Q: Should the reader feel sympathy for these characters?
A: I think the reader should feel sympathy for some of these characters. I think none of these characters deserved to die, although I was happy to sort of kill 'em off at the end.
A: Well, they're not the most sympathetic characters. I dunno. Maybe it speaks to some malice in myself that I was glad to do it, but I think they represent, for me anyway, the part of the culture that's most troublesome. That's not to say that all of them are totally flawed characters. None of them are perfect, but I think that White Mike is a complicated character, and while no one should be totally sympathetic to him, I think he's fundamentally a sympathetic character.
Q: Do you identify with him at all?
A: Of the characters in the book, I think I identify with him the most. Obviously I was not a drug dealer, and I'm not some of the things that White Mike is. But [I identify with him] to the extent that he's an observer. But it's not just me identifying with White Mike. I think a lot of people are confused about exactly what the hell they're gonna do with their lives at 17 or 18. White Mike's concerned with that, and so am I.
Q: Has writing the book clarified that for you, or made it more confusing?
A: Well, I've realized how much I really enjoy writing. It's been the most satisfying thing I've ever done to write this book. But I haven't had a mountain of experience, so I'm not sure. I think it has clarified things for me a little bit. Logistically, at least, it's given me things to do for the next several months.
Q: When you get to Harvard, are you going to put this whole thing aside and devote yourself to your schoolwork for the next four years?
A: I think so. In terms of publicity, I'm stopping all of it immediately as soon as I start school. Frankly, I'm sort of a geek, and I'm looking forward to studying. I haven't picked a major, but probably something in languages.
Q: Do you know the Boston area very well?
A: No, I've only been up there a couple times, so I'm looking forward to it. And, to some extent, there's the element of, "I'm getting out of high school! Boo yaka!"
Q: You've been compared with Jim Carroll, Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney. In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani even compared your prose with Hemingway's ...
A: What a trip that was for Kakutani to say that! It was very exciting for me, even though it was [a] fairly scathing [comparison with Hemingway].
Q: Well, it was by and large a positive review. And she doesn't give a whole lot of 'em.
A: I know. I was thrilled.
Q: It's a lame question, I know, but who are your influences?
A: Well, Hemingway, I suppose. It occurred to me how much so after Kakutani wrote that. But I read all the books that are mentioned, Bret Ellis and all those, when I was 12 or 13. I guess subconsciously I register all those things as influences. But in high school, I've read all the classics. In terms of modern novels, I love [Thomas] McGuane and Didion. But I love Nabokov and lots of old stuff, too.
Q: The press so far has focused not just on your age but on the publishing-world connections you've benefited from. Do you feel that's unfair?
A: I anticipated it and was worried about it. There was sort of a self-backlash. I don't want to be taking advantage of anything or compromise any integrity. But it's clear that I had unfair connections, that's the truth of the matter. I'm not gonna say that I didn't. But ultimately it comes down to the book. And if the book sucks, then none of it matters. I think the people associated with this book, like Morgan, my publisher, are all really serious about their work, and none of them would ever compromise that. I hope that's what it comes down to. But obviously I worry about that, and I try to keep my head on my shoulders.
Q: Growing up surrounded by all these publishing big shots, did you ever feel pressured to write a book?
A: No, I just wanted to do it. My parents never expected me to be a writer or anything. But they were encouraging when I did it; they could have just told me, "Stupid kid, get a summer job." I did feel some guilt about that. That's why I wrote it the way I did, for six hours every day, at the same time, over my summer vacation.
Q: Talk a little more about what you're looking forward to at Harvard. Do you plan on writing another book?
A: Yeah, I have another idea for a book, and I'd like to do it. But obviously I'm more interested in going to college. I have a lot to do. I'm very lucky - that's the key, actually; I'm very lucky in all regards, now that I think about it - but I'm very lucky this summer that I get to travel a lot, so I'm looking forward to that. I don't know how much time I'll have to write another book, but when I get to college I'm gonna try to do it. People have written books with a lot more to do than going to college. So I'm just gonna study and try to write.
Nick McDonell reads from Twelve on July 11, at 7 p.m., at WordsWorth Books, 30 Brattle Street, in Cambridge. Call (617) 354-5201. Mike Miliard can be reached at mmiliard[a]phx.com