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Set in New York over four days between Christmas and New Year's, TWELVE, the debut novel from Nick McDonell, takes the reader on a dizzying journey of teenage sex, drugs, and violence. Moving at breakneck speed and filled with interchangeable characters, the novel reads like a collision between MTV and "Cops."

At the center of the story is White Mike, a philosophical private school dropout who now sells drugs to New York's richest and most spoiled kids. All the money in the world cannot save White Mike and his friends and customers from loneliness, anger, and frustration. Despite these strong emotions, or perhaps because they are overcome by them, McDonell's characters seem empty and two-dimensional. This shallowness, however, further conveys the motif of hopelessness.

The young men and women who populate TWELVE are seemingly adrift in New York City. Their parents are notably absent, leaving them with huge empty apartments and unlimited access to funds. The reader can only guess why most of these characters feel and act as desperate as they do (although parental neglect surely plays a part). It is unclear whether this tale is an indictment of a certain socioeconomic class in America or of post Generation X teenagers. Either way, McDonell seems to be saying that threats of destruction by America's youth, both inwardly and outwardly directed, cannot be dismissed lightly.

White Mike, the central character, while the most developed, is still an enigma. Mike never does drugs himself but he has no qualms about selling them to others. Quietly rebellious and subtly poetic, he remains distant from the fatalistic world he observes (and contributes to). The death of his cousin, however, propels him into a scene of unbelievable violence, a scene to which he is unwittingly linked. Yet it is his distance, fueled by loss, that in the end gives him the greatest chance of both physical and emotional survival.

White Mike's intelligence and cynicism will undoubtedly lead to comparisons with Holden Caulfield, a parallel that is both inaccurate and unnecessary. McDonell's central figure is both less original and less developed, and McDonell's story is vastly different from Salinger's. However, McDonell, too, has created a character at once frustrating and sympathetic: a young man challenging himself by challenging the system he finds himself a part of yet finds hypocritical and damaging. And like Salinger, McDonell never fully discloses the intellectual potential or the emotional damage of his protagonist.

The vulnerabilities of McDonell's characters are apparent, but the source of these vulnerabilities is not. Just as the parents are absent, so is the history of each character. We do learn something about White Mike. We learn the loss he suffers with his mother's death, his frustration with his education, the distance between him and his father, and his loyalty to the few people he deems worthy. About the other characters, we know only that they are handsome and beautiful and privileged, but we do not know why they kill or why they begin taking the intense, eponymous drug "twelve." Perhaps this lack of disclosure is intentional on McDonell's part. More likely, it is the sign of a young and inexperienced writer.

TWELVE is a frightening tale of trauma and emptiness written with an impressive sharpness and ferocity. Only 17 when he wrote this brisk but powerful novel, Nick McDonell is off to a great start to what promises to be a successful and interesting literary career.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 23, 2011

by Nick McDonell

  • Publication Date: August 9, 2012
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 244 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press
  • ISBN-10: 0802140122
  • ISBN-13: 9780802140128