Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Third Brother

A Novel

by Nick McDonell

“The pacing . . . is perfect. His descriptions of various things—the cafés on Khao San Road; the desperate yearning of the young for independence, experience, and drugs—are visceral and stirring. At times he achieves actual unsettling suspense. Without question, Nick McDonell has other things a writer needs besides a publisher: voice and talent.” —Ariel Levy, New York Magazine

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 280
  • Publication Date May 16, 2006
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4267-2
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $13.00

About The Book

Nick McDonell’s debut novel, Twelve, was a publishing sensation. It was an international best seller, garnished phenomenal reviews, and established its seventeen-year-old author as an important literary voice. In The Third Brother, McDonell delivers another remarkable novel, a haunting tale of brotherly love, family tragedy, and national grief.

Mike was a lucky child: a vacation house on Long Island, famous family friends, an Ivy League education, and also an older brother, Lyle, who looked out for him and protected him from his parents’ volatile marriage.

Mike is spending the summer working for a magazine in Hong Kong when his editor sends him to Bangkok to report on the drug-tourism crackdown. But Mike’s real mission is to find Christopher Dorr, a brilliant journalist and old friend of his parent who has gone AWOL. This is the beginning of a vertiginous journey that propels Mike into seedy nights in Thailand and back to New York, to a home wrecked by violence.

Tags Literary


“One of the best and most vivid evocations of [September 11] that I’ve read.” —Jay McIneryny, The Guardian

“McDonell is forging himself a place as this generation’s champion of angst-riddled youth. . . . A terrific novelist already, McDonell is close to a spot at the table occupied by the likes of Barth, Bellow, Roth and Updike.” —Jon Land, The Providence Journal

“McDonell, who at 17 made a splash with his debut Twelve, delivers an assured and heartfelt second. . . . Engrossing, with indelible scenes and a protagonist to care about.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“McDonell has a keen eye for eerie, atmospheric details.” —Dave Itzkoff, The New York Times Book Review

“McDonell uses language with elegant, minimalist precision . . . [He] writes best about the precise dynamics of class, loneliness and spiritual decay. . . he is a keen observer of internecine sparring, even those conflicts subtle enough to leave no scars.” —Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“The pacing . . . is perfect. His descriptions of various things—the cafés on Khao San Road; the desperate yearning of the young for independence, experience, and drugs—are visceral and stirring. At times he achieves actual unsettling suspense. Without question, Nick McDonell has other things a writer needs besides a publisher: voice and talent.” —Ariel Levy, New York Magazine

“It’s a quick-paced narrative that conflates global terrorism and localized terror as experienced by one young, New York man. . . . McDonell’s style here is cool and light. . . . Presented in short competent sentences that Hemingway would be proud of. . . . He approaches his story boldly.” —Chris Watson, Santa Cruz Sentinel

“Throttles along like a movie . . . And it pulls you with it.” —Nina MacLaughlin, Boston Phoenix

“McDonell’s stripped-down writing style is effective and assured.” —Anne Stephenson, Arizona Republic

“Haunting . . . acidic . . . Will leave you overdosed on cut-to-the-bone prose and reality checks. . . . McDonell has learned to stick with what works by mimicking the experimental narrative refined by the beat generation. . . . Reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. . . . Appealing . . . Not only is the reader looking at life through the eyes of a 20-year-old, they are constantly challenged by the refreshing views he brings forth.” —Nicholas Addison Thomas, The Feelance-Star (Fredericksburg, VA)

“A harrowing representation of what that day was like for those who survived it. . . . Few have tackled that day as directly as The Third Brother does.” —Christopher R. Beha, Bookforum

“McDonell has a knack for capturing place with sharp-eyed, vivid prose: scenes set in Bangkok’s whirl of sex and drugs, and his evocation of 9/11 disbelief and horror are both charged with a reality that’s reportorial in its authenticity.” —Publishers Weekly

“After receiving a tremendous amount of attention for his first novel Twelve . . . McDonell has followed it up with a more meditative effort that reflects a more sophisticated, experienced outlook on life. . . [His] prodigious talent is without question, and his current development is evident throughout this work.” —Library Journal

“Happily, McDonell still eschews the showy, essayistic style currently so fashionable in American writing in favour of a determination to present his characters unadorned. But, now, his obvious technical precocity is beginning to serve a fine, wry judgment . . . . Though there is little visual detail, the culminative effect is strangely cinematic, and in this McDonell has a claim to be considered a true stylist. . . . We see a penetrating, emphatic intelligence at work. . . . Nick McDonell is the real thing.” —David Mattin, the Independent (UK)

“Every once in a while a writer comes along with a voice so clear that it makes the act of writing a novel seem easy. Nick McDonell is one such writer, producing in The Third Brother a book whose style and craft belies his 21 years. . . . The writing vibrates with the youthful vigour of a writer who just seems to be far too young, not only to know this much, but also to be able to communicate it this well.” —Alex Sewter, the Leeds Guide

Praise for Twelve:

“As fast as speed, as relentless as acid . . . McDonell sketches in these characters with brisk authority, deftly cutting from one subplot to another in quick, cinematic takes. . . . He gives us a palpable sense of the privileged but spiritually desolate world that his characters inhabit.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

Twelve . . . delivers a satirical, even playful portrait of a world that is perilous but essentially humane. . . . [McDonell] renders Manhattan’s cosseted Upper East Side with both the casual authority of an insider and the wry distance of an observer. . . . He maintains a teasing affection for the absurdities of adolescence—an impressive feat of synthesis.” —Jennifer Egan, The New York Times Book Review

“Like Bret Easton Ellis’s first novel, Less Than Zero, it is a report on the secret lives of certain privileged young Americans that is likely to shock some (if not all) of their oblivious parents. . . . It will command attention. . . . [McDonell] employs a prose style that affects pithiness and punch—a bit of Hemingway here, a bit of Hammett there, short paragraphs and terse dialogue—and that contains, beneath the tough-guy veneer, a soft inner core of sentimentality.” —Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

“The artfulness of Twelve is undeniable. The story moves, dips into big issues of race and class, and has great writing that reveals what McDonell calls ‘the spiritual debilitation of a generation.’” —Heidi Benson, San Francisco Chronicle


Mike was privileged and troubled at the same time. He knew that if you grow up with money you don’t think about being rich, and that the same is probably true of courage. But if you grow up with lies, you find out that some lies become true. Mike knew this, too, and so did not lie. Except to himself, about his parents.

They were husband and wife but sometimes mistaken for siblings. They could have been carved out of the same piece of alabaster. Mike inherited the long high planes of their cheekbones, and he loved his parents in a very conscious way. They were both troubled themselves, and their trouble accelerated Mike’s childhood. He had seen them at their worst, violent and irrational, naked in public, smooth features con­torted. In his reckoning as a young man, though, they were fine, and he had decided, in the face of their madness and addictions, that he loved them. And his life was his own.

Chapter One

The summer is dragging for Mike as he rises, by escalator, out of the cool subway into the Hong Kong heat.

He is too tall, out of place as he crosses the jammed street to Taikoo Tower, where he has been working for six weeks. Seems like a year. The tower looms over him, silent workers and pulsing tech­nology, a kingdom of itself above the Hong Kong streets. Mike doesn’t like the skyscraper—it has become predictable—but he is grateful for the air-conditioning. Everything inside the tower works. Outside, not. His job, his internship, is at a news magazine that he had never read until the twenty-two-hour flight from New York.

Mike has several bosses at the magazine, but the reason he has the job is that the managing editor, Elliot Analect, is a friend of his father. Analect even looks like his father, Mike realized when they shook hands. All of those guys look alike, all tall, clean, white guys who have known one another for de­cades. They were in the same club at Harvard, wore the same ties. And then they went to Vietnam and almost all of them came back. Growing up, Mike didn’t see his father’s friends much but he had the sense they were in touch. So when it was time for his first internship, the summer after his freshman year, Mike was not surprised that he ended up working for Analect. He was glad, at least, that the job was in Hong Kong and not in midtown Manhattan.

As a summer intern, Mike seldom gets out of the office, spends his days wading the Internet. He is doing research, mostly for Thomas Bishop, one of the magazine’s correspon­dents. Mike has a view of Analect’s office and sometimes watches his father’s old friend through the smoked-glass walls, but they have had little contact since that initial welcome handshake. And the most excitement Mike has had was when Analect abruptly spoke with him in the hallway, promising to take him out to lunch at the end of the summer. Strange, Mike thinks, and wishes there was more for him to do. As he surfs the Internet he thinks about fathers and sons, and how friend­ship does not necessarily pass down. Mike has already seen this often among his friends and their fathers.

So Mike is glad when the assignment comes, even though he is very surprised. He had been watching again, and Analect had been standing in conversation with Bishop for nearly ten min­utes. Mike had been looking closely through the glass—he sensed the men were angry with one another—when Bishop suddenly turned and opened the door. Mike feared he was caught, but then Bishop waved him into the office and Analect asked if he wanted to go to Bangkok. “Help Tommy with some reporting,” as he put it.

Bishop nods slightly at Mike. Bishop is a small man, with fat features and prematurely graying black hair.

“The story is backpacker kids going to Bangkok to do ec­stasy,” Analect says. “Just don’t get arrested.”

“He doesn’t want to have to retrieve you,” Bishop says. “It’s really just a travel story, is another way to look at it.”

Analect goes on.

“Just a travel story,” Bishop repeats, chuckling.

“You’re their age,” Analect continues, “the backpackers’. You’ll be good at talking to them. Ask questions. It can be your story too. And one other thing I’ve already explained to Tommy . . .”

Mike catches Bishop rolling his eyes.

“. . . I want you to find Christopher Dorr.”

Mike can’t place the name.

“He used to do a lot of the investigative pieces Tommy does now,” Analect says, looking straight at him, seeming almost to ignore Bishop. “He’s been in Bangkok for a while, I think. It’d be good for someone from the magazine to look him up.”

Mike tries to decode this and can’t. Analect tells him again to stay out of trouble and that Bishop will take care of him. It seems to Mike that Bishop is pleased to have the help, but that there is more to it. When they are leaving the office, Analect tells Mike to wait for a moment, and when they are alone, he tells Mike that Dorr had been a friend of Mike’s father, years ago. That they had all been good friends, actually, the three of them practically brothers, and that Mike’s father would be glad for news of Dorr.

Mike looks out the window. He notices for the first time how really extraordinary the view from Analect’s office is. Mike can see the whole city, enormous and smogged and throbbing. For a moment he can’t believe the sound of it doesn’t blow in the windows. But Analect’s office sits quietly above it all, hum­ming coolly. Mike is suddenly uneasy, with only the inch of glass between the two of them and the loud, empty space above the city. He looks back at Analect, who is frowning.

“Dorr and your father were sparring partners, when they boxed back in college,” says Analect.

Mike looks back out over the city. He knew about the boxing, but his father had never mentioned Dorr. It all surprises him, but maybe it’s just seeing his own features re­flected in the glass, and the long drop to Hong Kong from fifty stories up.

Chapter Two

When Mike was a small boy, his parents often entertained. In New York City in their world, they were famous for the din­ners they gave in their big beach house at the end of Long Island, especially Thanksgiving. Mike remembered the candle­light and gluey cranberry sauce, which he would wipe off his hands into his hair. His older brother, Lyle, remembered the same things. There were servants, who disciplined Mike when his parents did not. One Filipino lady in particular boxed his ears. When he was older he remembered how it hurt but not her name. Their parents gave these dinners several years in a row. There were mostly the same guests, adults who would tousle Mike’s fine but cranberried hair, and their children, a crew of beautiful, spoiled playmates whom Mike assumed he would know forever. He still saw some of them, at parties and dinners of their own on school breaks. At hearing that one or two of them had slid into addiction, Mike would remember chasing them through his mother’s busy kitchen. His mother was never in the kitchen, of course, but it was definitely hers. Small paintings of vegetables and an antique mirror hung on its walls.

When dinner started, the children would go to the play­room and eat with the nannies. They lounged on overstuffed couches, watching movies until they fell asleep and the nan­nies went outside for cigarettes. Lyle especially loved these dinners and made a point of talking to everybody, lingering in the dining room rather than watching movies with the other children. He loved listening to adults talk. So did Mike, but he knew he didn’t understand the way his older brother did.

The adults sat and drank wine and laughed and smiled at one another in the fall candlelight. Many of them had started families late or had been married once before and had only recently started new ones. Jobs were interesting; there was much travel. There was a lot to talk about, and the subtext was that they were lucky to have the lives they had. Mike remembered everyone being very happy.

Before one of these dinners, Lyle decided that he and Mike would be spies. Lyle had gotten a small tape recorder, only a toy really, for his birthday earlier that fall. Their plan was to hide it in the dining room to record the dinner conversation. While the servants were setting up, and Mike’s mother was upstairs dressing and Mike’s father was out walking along the ocean, Lyle and Mike secured the tape recorder under the table with duct tape.

As the guests arrived and had drinks, the boys slid between them and crawled under the table and switched on the recorder.

They were very excited all through dinner, but they didn’t tell any of the other children what they were up to. By dessert, Mike couldn’t wait any longer. He wanted to go get the recorder. No, said Lyle, they’ll be there for a long time. Let’s just look.

When they peeked around the dining room door, Elliot Analect saw them and held up the tape recorder, which he must have found much earlier, maybe when he first sat down. Analect wasn’t a regular guest at these dinners. He was usually abroad somewhere. At that point he was a correspondent in East Asia, and Mike’s father was especially glad to have him for Thanks­giving. Mike’s mother didn’t like Analect. Mike didn’t know this the way Lyle did, but he had a sense of it too.

When Analect held up the recorder Mike knew instantly they would be in trouble. He saw the way the adults laughed but didn’t think it was funny. One of them, drunker than the rest and not a very good friend of Mike’s parents, was even a little angry. Mike remembered that he worked for one of the networks. Their mother was embarrassed and that always made her cross as well. Mike’s father called the boys over and tried to set things right by giving them a talk, in front of everyone, that was both funny and serious. Analect removed the tape from the recorder and put it in his pocket.