Nick McDonell’s first novel (written, in case you haven’t read a newspaper recently, when he was 17) is set on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and focuses on a group of teenagers from that neighbourhood. With a couple of exceptions, the characters in the novel are immensely privileged: they attend – or have attended – boarding schools; they live in luxurious apartments belonging to their (often absent) parents; and they are used to being looked after by maids. At the same time, many of them attempt to connect themselves to less privileged existences: they shop-lift, deal drugs, fantasise about – and in some cases own – guns. Most of the time, the harm this causes is limited and trivial – they merely end up looking ridiculous. But it has some wider and genuinely alarming consequences.
The action, which takes place over the five days leading up to New Year’s Eve, unfolds in brisk chapters (there are 98 in a novel of only 244 pages), each one focusing on a different character or event. At first it seems that there is little to connect them but, as the novel progresses, a sense of sprawling unity emerges. The plot (which is one of Twelve’s best features) is too complicated to summarise, but it is driven by the sense of danger that results when the worlds of Upper Manhattan and Harlem collide.
One advantage of McDonell’s shifting, film-script narrative is that it allows him to juggle a large cast of characters (fifteen or so). Two of the more ridiculous are Mark Rothko and Timmy, a pair of would-be gangsters who speak in an incomprehensible lingo derived from their ideas of the way black people talk (‘Foh shizza my drizzle’; ‘What in the damn shiz for a niz’). ‘White kids pretending to be black’, they prowl the streets looking for trouble, committing such appalling crimes as stealing hip-hop CDs, scoring dope and buying cigarettes with their fake ID cards. Part of the reason they are funny is that, for all their efforts to adopt credible street personas, their backgrounds are never other than obvious. On one CD-pilfering excursion, for instance, Mark Rothko discreetly stuffs a copy of James Taylor’s Greatest Hits into his pocket, having heard his father listening to it earlier. Mark Rothko acquired his nickname following a school trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, during which he pushed a fellow pupil into a painting. And though he now does his best to disclaim all knowledge of his namesake – he’s just ‘some painter dude’ – it remains the case that genuine gangsters aren’t named after artists.
Sara Ludlow is the ‘hottest girl at her school by, like, a lot’. She sees it as her business to organise parties – even ones at other people’s houses – because, she thinks, throwing the right party ‘will lock her in as the girl who makes things happen’. Sara has a strategy to realise her main ambition in life, to be famous: ‘First you’re famous in your grade, then you’re famous in your school. Then you’re famous in all the schools, and then in the city, or at least the part of the city that matters. And then you’ve got a career.’ She persuades Chris, a pimply 17-year-old with a large pornography collection, to throw a New Year’s Eve party at his absent parents’ duplex apartment, the setting for the book’s ‘apocalyptic’ conclusion.
Other characters are less amusing, and more troubling. Jessica, for instance, is a ‘pretty but not flawless’ girl with ‘nice breasts’, a ‘nose job’ and a rapidly escalating addiction to ‘Twelve’, a new designer drug (the effects of which she describes as being ‘like coke but more like Ecstasy’). She spends a lot of time preening in front of the mirror, trying to convince herself it doesn’t matter that she is not as pretty as Sara Ludlow. But her self-hatred is revealed in a bizarre scene in her bedroom, when she uses her teddy bears to enact a Jerry Springer role-play that culminates in her fantasising her own death. Jessica’s male counterpart is Claude, an ex-coke addict obsessed with weapons, who makes regular trips to Chinatown to buy exotic guns and knives, which he stashes in his bedroom.
As well as being an able satirist, McDonell can be quite the teenage moralist. He suggests that although characters like Sara and Timmy and Mark Rothko appear harmless and funny, their behaviour is not so very different from that of Jessica and Claude. This is reinforced by the parallels established between the two sets of characters. Sara, for instance, trades on her ‘womanly wiles’ in order to get what she wants – she hints to Chris that she will sleep with him if he agrees to the New Year’s Eve party – but she does this in a mocking, self-conscious way, not for a moment believing that her behaviour could be construed as worrying or dangerous. Later on, Jessica finds herself short of money to pay for a batch of Twelve, and agrees to have sex with her dealer. Similarly, Timmy and Mark Rothko’s fantasies of being black – which seem quite endearing – become less amusing when set against the overt racism of Claude, who refers to Chinatown as ‘Slantyville’, and mimics the speech of the store owners he buys his weapons from.
What these characters convey, above all else, is a sense of being trapped by their privilege. Even when they try to connect to the real world, all they end up doing is imposing their fantasies on it. The exception is White Mike, who is the novel’s protagonist and – to a large extent – provides its moral consciousness. Like the other characters in Twelve, White Mike comes from a wealthy background. But, unlike them, he is not so deluded about life on the other side. According to his best friend, Hunter, White Mike should be at Harvard (‘you think you couldn’t rip that place up?’) but instead spends his time dealing drugs. Given that White Mike has never taken drugs himself, this might seem strange, but it gives him access to a side of the city that he alone is seen as capable of understanding.
White Mike’s superior grasp of reality is underscored by the motif of his penetrating vision. He is continually depicted watching others. At various points he makes trips to out-of-the-way places – an amusement arcade on Coney Island, a ‘half-dome amphitheatre near 77th Street’ used as a skateboarding ramp – and sits by himself, just gazing. He and his friends all learned about the ‘spectre of the inner city’ in their history class, but we are told that ‘only White Mike ever came close to seeing’. Once he got a pair of ‘high-powered binoculars’ as a Christmas present, which he used to spy on his neighbours. Perhaps this is stretching the point: after all, White Mike is the one character in Twelve who doesn’t need binoculars. But it helps to suggest how much he differs from a character like Jessica, who also relies on a visual aid – her bedroom mirror – but uses it only to scrutinise herself.
All the other characters are compared with – and to some extent judged against – White Mike. Often his clear-sightedness is directly contrasted with someone else’s muddy vision. Here, for example, is an account of a conversation with his cousin Charlie, who is also a part-time drug-dealer:
they talked about cowboys. The way they wore their guns slung low, with the holsters open and the trigger guards cut away so that when the bad guy arrived at high noon, you could pull your iron before he could, and in the end he would fall to the ground and you would still be standing. And Charlie said it was really about how fast you pulled your gun, and White Mike said, No, Charlie, it’s really about pulling the trigger.
When this conversation – which is recounted as part of a flashback – took place, Charlie had just bought a gun. When the flashback occurs in the novel, Charlie is already dead, having been killed in a fight with another drug dealer (though White Mike doesn’t know this yet). So the point White Mike is making – that the reality of owning a gun is more important than the fantasy – is more immediately significant than he realises.
Yet White Mike is a troubled character. Otherwise why be a drug dealer: surely there must be better ways to connect with reality? And his extraordinarily austere attitude to pleasure is also strange; at home he ‘forces himself to enjoy reading, or watching television, or preparing a meal’. Not only does he avoid drink and drugs: his whole life is an exercise in self-denial, and he even goes about his dealing with an obsessive, monk-like dedication. McDonell offers possible explanations for this – we learn that White Mike’s mother died of cancer three and a half years ago, and that his home life is lonely – but he never probes very far. This makes White Mike’s role problematic: Twelve depends, to a large extent, on the reader believing in White Mike’s superiority, and McDonell overestimates its self-evidence.
Take sex. When White Mike catches sight of Sara Ludlow at a party, he stares at her ‘for a second, and wonders how smart she is’. Tobias, on the other hand, a model friend of Claude’s, sees someone beautiful in the waiting room of his agency, and ‘immediately thinks to himself how much he would like to sleep with that particular girl’. White Mike is the only male character in the novel capable of having non-sexual friendships with women. But is his lack of interest in sex really as mature and enlightened as McDonell imagines? Behind his apparent uninterest, something more aggressive occasionally reveals itself. In a flashback to tenth grade, White Mike recalls his classmate Megan telling him that a rapist is at large on the Upper East Side: ‘But no, seriously, being raped is like my greatest fear. I’m, like, so seriously afraid of being raped. Just two days ago, the rapist walked into a store in the middle of the day, locked the door, and raped a clerk. Will you walk me home?’ White Mike then recalls seeing a sketch of the suspected rapist on the wall of a deli. ‘He pictured that man holding down Megan (who was, like, so afraid and screaming) and ripping her plaid-skirt school uniform and probably just raping her right there in the middle of Fifth Avenue.’ The ostensible point is that Megan’s attitude is shallow and irresponsible: by using the rapist as a pretext to flirt with White Mike, she is trivialising the real danger that he poses. Why this should prompt such a hostile fantasy is less obvious. White Mike tells himself he feels ‘real bad’ for Megan; yet he envisages her rape with something approaching satisfaction.
Twelve ends with Sara and Chris’s New Year’s Eve party, at which most of the characters are killed in a post-Columbine shoot-out. Predictably, White Mike survives, and is revealed in an epilogue to have written the novel. McDonell may feel that this ending is a fair judgment on his characters; but I found myself increasingly warming to Sara and Jessica and Timmy and Mark Rothko, and wishing that White Mike would turn his 20:20 moral vision on himself a little more often. There is something slightly disquieting about judging teenagers so harshly. But if anyone can get away with it, I suppose a 17-year-old can.