McDonell, who at 17 made a splash with his debut, Twelve (2002), delivers an assured and heartfelt second.
The narrator, Mike, 19 when we first meet him, works as an intern for an English language news magazine in Hong Kong. It’s a job he got because managing editor Elliot Analect is an old Harvard friend of his fathers’s. It’s a job that pretty much bores Mike silly, so that he jumps at the chance to go to Bangkok to help research a story on back-packing kids and their drugs of choice. “ ‘Just don’t get arrested,’ ” his boss tells him. He almost does, and on one occasion he’s almost killed. Much that happens to him in Thailand is unsettling, nightmarish even, but what calls him home is worse. Mike’s is a family on the far side of dysfunctional—both parents alcoholics, a brother whose hold on emotional equilibrium is tentative to say the least. And yet he loves them, and when they can, they love him back. Rich, talented, charming—he thinks of them as a “catalog people, handsome and expensive”—they have made his growing up both pain- and pleasure-filled. He returns from Asia because tragedy has struck, forcing him into a complex and unwelcome role—his older brother’s keeper. Most of Part Two is devoted to the horror of 9/11, understatedly but brilliantly reported, as Mike, fearing that Lyle, his brother, might be one of those trapped, works his way toward a devastated downtown. Part Three is a kind of coda, a squaring up, as Mike, now 21, attempts to come to terms with life’s savagery.
Engrossing, with indelible scenes and a protagonist to care about.