by Nick McDonell
Published by Grove Press/Atlantic Monthly Press
256 pages, 2002
Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum
Twelve is an incredibly frustrating novel. It's remarkably well-written. A quick read. It's also great fun to read. I read all 250 pages in two sittings, and I seldom do that. Truth is, I seldom feel compelled to read that fast, but Twelve pulled me forward hypnotically.
Part of the attraction is first-time author Nick McDonell's use of language. It's spare almost to the point of being telegraphic. His sentences don't seem sentence-like, though in every way they are. Instead, they seem to work more like strings of carefully-honed phrases, lightning-fast lasers into his characters' psyches. With just a few choice words, McDonell sketches them mercilessly, using brand names, thoughts and snippets of dialogue to paint what come across as fully-realized people.
Even more interesting, for everything McDonell tells you, you are aware, as you read, that there is a vast amount he isn't revealing. But you don't miss it. William Goldman, author of Marathon Man, Magic, and other edge-of-your-seat thrillers, once wrote about the spine of a book. He advised writers to include only things that connect to the spine; nothing else matters. McDonell has elevated that bit of advice to an art; he leaves practically everything out. What remains, truly the detritus of these people, is absolutely all you need.
Twelve reads like a mystery, except there's no mystery. Its plot is composed of several strings of story, the central one about a drug dealer named White Mike, who himself has never actually done drugs. As he works his way through several days between Christmas and New Year's, he works the streets of upper class New York City, where he and his friends, the children of the rich and powerful, spend their days and nights planning parties, falling in and out of lust, getting high and otherwise occupying what seem to be dull lives. For most of them, it's senior year -- of high school -- they're living the lives of bohemian adults while their parents are off traveling for the holidays.
As White Mike answers beeps and deals film canisters filled with pot, Twelve -- which gets its title from another drug he occasionally deals -- flits like a fickle gnat from his story to others'. His friends, their friends, the people he deals to, then back again, with the overall effect a quick building of tension as White Mike and the others race toward a shocking fate they cannot predict. The transitions between the stories sometimes hang on mere moments, on the smallest of details. For example, White Mike is on the phone with someone, the conversation ends, the other person hangs up,and you follow them into their piece of the story. It's as simple as that. It's filmic, written in something akin to screenplay shorthand, but only in retrospect. It reads like what it is: great prose, great fiction.
Intricate is a word that comes to mind. McDonell has crafted an intricate fiction. It's not deep, it's not challenging and it's not surprising -- but it's wonderfully entertaining.
And as skilled as he is sketching his characters' physical personae, he's even better at nailing the way they speak. Clearly, these aren't just characters; these are people McDonell knows -- and knows well. Twelve could very well be a diary of a few days during his own senior year.
The spray of blood on the cover of the North American edition is a tell-tale sign of things to come. At its most suspenseful heights, Twelve will have you wringing your hands. Not because you don't know what's going to happen; believe me, you will know what's going to happen; it's inevitable. There will be violence, awful, bloody violence. What makes for all the suspense is not knowing precisely how or when it will happen.
McDonell has taken a rather large cue from Alfred Hitchcock, who always believed that instead of surprising you with an explosion, one should show the ticking bomb under the chair. That way, you will feel much more anxiety, wondering when it will blow.
In a way, this is the DNA of Twelve. And it works like a charm. Despite yourself, despite your distaste for some of these characters and some of this subject matter, despite the very real notion that this book should not engage you so, it does.
Yes, Twelve is an incredibly frustrating novel. For all of these reasons, but also for none of them. Twelve is frustrating because its author is a mere 18 years old. He was a junior in high school when he wrote it. To think that he's gotten his first book so right, right off the bat, makes me shudder with anticipation. I can't wait to see what he writes next. | August 2002
Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse. At night he works on another novel and a screenplay. Days, he writes advertising copy in Lawrenceville, NJ, where he lives with his wife and sons.