To judge by the summer’s most-hyped fiction by America’s young men — Nick McDonell’s The Third Brother and Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision — the rising generation is in mild crisis. Said crisis stems from having too much, knowing too much, and having nothing to do. Parents and siblings are useful in this regard — they can arrange jobs, finance trips, fix up potential lovers to fill the time — as are institutional structures like schools, or indeed school reunions. If you’re really stuck, you can always join the global exodus from the First World to the Third, to some exotic and delicious retreat, where you can take Ecstasy with backpackers from all over the world — Sydney, Oslo, Jerusalem and Long Island, too. Then you can go home and write a novel about it.
How much of a sense of humor you have about this mild crisis depends on who you are. If you are Nick McDonell, the boy wonder who has only this year reached his majority but whose first novel, Twelve, published when he was a mere 17, was an international best-seller, then you don’t see much that’s funny about it at all. If you’re Benjamin Kunkel, on the other hand, slipping into the unreliable old age that lurks beyond 30, you can’t stop joking about the whole situation. It’s a matter of how knowing you are about knowing.
To review these novels together is in some sense unfair: What they have in common — buzz, drugs, travel, a glancing treatment of 9/11, a smooth underpinning of parental cash — is central to both but defines neither, or defines them only in the negative. No individual embodies his Zeitgeist, thank God; and for all his ambition, McDonell’s protagonist, Mike, is as peripheral to the hip scene around him as the perennially inactive and indecisive Dwight Wilmerding is in Kunkel’s Indecision. Both young men, so similar and yet so different, watch and record. From this, whatever significance these novels can muster will emerge.
One way in which the two books differ is in their ultimate success. Nick McDonell is clearly talented, and highly accomplished, given his youth. That he can out-write any of his peers seems certain. His prose is tight, in a post-post-Hemingway, almost parodic, sort of way, and his novel is delivered in short, punchy chapters. The problem is that Mike is just a kid, and that McDonell is perhaps not sufficiently distanced from such a kid — not quite knowing enough — to have any irony about him. For example: “The day before he left for Hong Kong, Mike was worried. For a day and a half his parents had not been speaking to each other with such cruelty that Mike became apprehensive about their future and the future of his family. Worrying slowed him down, though, so he tried to think of better times.” It is hard to see how Mike’s parents’ mutual silent treatment could qualify as “such cruelty,” but that’s neither here nor there. More problematic is the jejune inadequacy of Mike’s response: His worry is shallow, and his response to his worry is shallow, and McDonell seems to have no comment upon that shallowness. Which leaves us, well, on the surface.
It’s easy to skate through The Third Brother. Its plot is highly dramatic, its execution impressively sketchy. The first half of the novel — in which Mike’s summer job for a magazine in Hong Kong takes him to Bangkok, where he hangs out with local journalists and hippie backpackers, survives some brushes with the law, and witnesses some ugly stuff — is more patiently and convincingly unfolded than what follows, although even at its most lingering, the story is brusque, its characters wafer-thin. When Mike returns home, it’s to disaster: His parents have been killed in a house fire and his brother is unhinged. In the scant hundred pages remaining, still more will go wrong, all at breakneck speed. The “third brother” of the title is the creation of Mike’s brother Lyle, who attributes the fire to this imaginary figure. But no substance, no resonance accrues to this creation: I have told you almost all there is to know about him. He is a cursory figment.
Nick McDonell will doubtless write more and better books. He will in time distinguish between the laconic and the superficial. Hemingway famously wrote that most of a story, like most of an iceberg, is largely submerged: You see only the tip, but the whole entity is essential. This is an iceberg without ballast, a novel without depths. A silly novel. Which might be easier to bear if McDonell were funnier. Sometimes, it seems he might be being funny (“Mike’s girlfriend, Jane, was a very good student and also good at sex, a combination that Mike’s father once told him was not unusual”), but then again, McDonell’s tonal shifts often make it difficult to tell.
Benjamin Kunkel, however, is funny on purpose. His gentle comedy is Indecision’s greatest strength. There’s more than an echo of Lucky Jimin the novel’s hapless anti-hero, the blithely insignificant Dwight Wilmerding; just as there are echoes of significance in his insignificance. Wilmerding’s voice — solipsistic, spoiled, self-knowing, foible-full — has much charm, exasperating as it is; and the guy is a mediocre jerk in an apologetic, even winning, way. There’s a fine tradition, now, of such young men, from Kingsley Amis’ Jim Dixon down through Nick Hornby’s various rogues.
At the novel’s outset, Dwight is coming up to his 10th high school reunion (he’s a prep-school lad, graduate of the fictional St. Jerome’s). He has a casual girlfriend named Vaneetha, with whom he has sought consolation since the eve of 9/11. He has his job working in tech support at Pfizer. His future is cheerfully inauspicious.
In order to make a story of Dwight’s nothingness, Kunkel creates an elaborate, highly contrived plot, at once predictable and unpredictable. A series of manipulations and suggestions leads Dwight to an experimental (and fictional) drug said to stop chronic indecisiveness, and near-simultaneously to Quito, Ecuador, home of a high school crush named Natasha, who summarily vanishes. Here Dwight will embark upon a random (but ultimately far from random) foray into the jungle with a Belgian-Argentine grad-school dropout named Brigid. The plot is, if possible, sillier than the plot of Nick McDonell’s novel; but Dwight, and Kunkel, are so busy winking at the reader that this silliness is almost forgivable, even enjoyable. Only at the novel’s conclusion, when Dwight seems to undergo some halfhearted but apparently sincere political conversion, does he, and the novel with him, succumb to mawkishness: “What’s happiest,” observes Dwight, “is just to be alive and sensitive when it comes to feeling the world, and if what your senses, honed beyond usefulness, end up registering is so much suffering out there that you become lightheaded with it at times — well, those senses can still be used for extracting pleasures from fruits, nuts, beverages of all kinds, words on a page, a loved mammal in your arms, music (including sad kinds), and anyway this is only the tip of a list anyone could assemble.” The diction (“beverages of all kinds”) is surely intended to indicate Dwight’s, and Kunkel’s, irony here; but the sentimentality, banality and unexceptionable earnestness of Dwight’s position ultimately trump any attempts to ironize, and we are left at the end baffled by the strong-hearted, teary-eyed liberal who has emerged from Wilmerding’s sluggish soul.
Then again, the novel, accomplished and witty as it is, does not — in spite of blurbs on the jacket protesting its seriousness — offer much in the way of real reflection. Dwight may be more diverting and more richly conjured than McDonell’s Mike, but he is similarly null. To muse, even amusingly, upon one’s nullity doesn’t relieve one of it. That’s just fine, but it’s as far as it goes. Like Dwight’s father, one wants to shout “Don’t make a career out of your childhood!” Kunkel is clearly smart enough, and courageous enough as a writer, to go farther.
THE THIRD BROTHER | By Nick McDonell | Grove Press | 267 pages | $22 hardcover
INDECISION | By Benjamin Kunkel | Random House | 256 pages | $22 hardcover