Every generation needs a mouthpiece, someone who hits the nail on the head regarding the excesses of his contemporaries. Following in the footsteps of Douglas Coupland (Generation X), Bret Easton Ellis (Less Than Zero), and Jim Carroll (The Basketball Diaries), 18-year-old Nick McDonell is poised to be that spokesperson for the kids of the Information Age, and what he has to say isn't pretty. “Drop September 11th and we're the generation that produced Columbine. Violence is the hallmark of my generation,” explains McDonell. The precocious teen's debut novel, Twelve, is an unflinching look at New York City adolescents with too much money and too much free time on their hands. Something of a sadistic follow-up to this spring's The Nanny Diaries (another tale of poor little rich kids raised by the hired help while their parents turn a blind eye), Twelve follows the exploits of White Mike, a prep-school dropout turned drug dealer, and his privileged peers over winter break.
Juggling appearances on the Today show, a full-page spread in Entertainment Weekly, and an item in The New Yorker — not to mention the praise of Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson — McDonell is the talk of the town this summer. Much of the hype surrounding the young scribe, who was 17 when he wrote Twelve, is age-based — and rightfully so. When I was the same age, I could barely eke out a 10-page term paper, much less a 244-page novel. But the Harvard-bound McDonell, who penned the book in nine weeks, doesn't seem to have that problem. His characters may suffer from acute boredom, but McDonell doesn't. “Part of growing up in New York and part of Twelve,” says McDonell in an interview with Morgan Entrekin, his publisher at Grove/Atlantic, “is that these kids can't think of anything to do, so they sit around and mess themselves up.” Written in short vignettes, the novel gets quickly to the heart of “the spiritual debilitation of a generation,” as McDonell puts it. Readers are privy to all manner of frightful behaviors in a world noticeably devoid of adults. “These are rich kids, and their parents are off getting rich and being rich,” he says.
While Twelve is by no means a literary masterpiece — many of the characters are two-dimensional, and the Hollywood gangbanger ending reads like what you'd expect from a 17-year-old — McDonell's grasp of storytelling conventions and modern slang (if he were writing about the West Coast, no doubt his characters' favorite adverb would be “hella”) bears the mark of a fledgling talent. As with anything that informs clueless parents about the moral depravities of their offspring — take Larry Clark's controversial film Kids, for example — grown-ups may object to the book's violence and R-rated language. But Twelve could be the wake-up call some so-called adults need.