South Beach isn't exactly known as a literary mecca, making the standing-room-only crowd inside Lincoln Road's Books & Books this July evening all the more eyebrow-raising. But then Nick McDonell, the bookstore's guest of honor, isn't your typical literary wunderkind.
Forget the tweed and horn-rimmed glasses. With his artfully tousled thick blond hair, striking cheekbones, and casually chic T-shirt and linen shorts, the eighteen-year-old McDonell looks more like Ralph Lauren's idea of a surfer than a debut novelist, particularly one whose Twelve is being effusively praised by the New York Times, The New Yorker, National Public Radio, and the London Observer.
On top of that, add raves from the likes of Joan Didion ("Twelve is an astonishing rush") and Hunter Thompson ("The ratio of age to talent is horrifying.... I'm afraid he will do for his generation what I did for mine"), and it's all a bit jarring. After all, most aspiring writers sweat it out for years, grinding through MFA programs and hunting for an agent, acquiring some painful "life experience" before giving birth to their Great American Novel. Now along comes McDonell, who promptly bangs out a classic during the summer vacation before his senior year at New York's private Riverdale high school, and then embarks on his triumphant book tour just before leaving for college -- Harvard, natch.
Even well-known Beach author Brian Antoni, a long-time family friend of the McDonells and host for the evening's reading and subsequent party, is having a hard time being entirely gracious. "I don't know what to write for my introductory remarks," he sighs in frustration to Kulchur, staring down at a piece of paper with several crossed-out sentences. Tongue only partly in cheek, he adds, "How about 'I want to kill you'?"
Fortunately for all concerned, McDonell is well aware of the feelings his precocity can inspire. And he's able to laugh at the ingenue marketing shtick being ably deployed by his publisher. Fielding questions from his Books & Books audience, he explains why Grove/Atlantic took the odd move of shaving a year off Twelve's journey from raw manuscript to internationally released hardcover. "They moved really fast because the younger I am, the better it is for everybody," he quips. "That's why I look like I'm two years old in all my press photos."
It's the subject of how this all transpired that gets McDonell a bit prickly. "When I finished the book," he continues matter-of-factly, "my father said, 'Can I show it to Morgan?' and I said 'Cool!'"
Of course, dear old papa is none other than Terry McDonell, the editor of Sports Illustrated, a networked Manhattanite with former stints helming Rolling Stone and Esquire. And "Morgan" is Morgan Entrekin, the head of Grove/Atlantic, as well as Nick's godfather to boot.
"I was at my reading in New York," McDonell recalls with a frown, "and this girl got up in my face and asked me, 'What advice would you give to someone without your connections?'" He shakes his head dismissively: "It's not like she was underprivileged -- she went to Andover.... Look, nepotism gets you in the door, and then the book speaks for itself."
Indeed it does. Twelve admirably compares to such lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-dissolute as Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero and Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays, precursors whose minimalist style and dry tone McDonell readily salutes. Substituting the New York high school prepster set for El Lay lotus-eaters, McDonell crafts a knowing portrait of spiritually depraved teens on the Upper East Side. In other words, it's about his classmates.
Still, Twelve's tales of teenage sex and drugging may impress the cognoscenti, but what about actual teenagers? At Brian Antoni's house later that evening, during the cocktail party feting McDonell, Kulchur seizes the opportunity to enact an impromptu focus group: five local kids, bright and worldly past their tender years -- Twelve characters come to life who have crashed the shindig at McDonell's behest. Kulchur quietly ushers them into Antoni's guest bedroom and closes the door.
McDonell himself settles into a rocking chair, but he's not about to let Kulchur take the investigative lead. "Suppose I wanted to score some weed?" he asks his new fan club. "Could you get it tonight?"
Bonnie, a fifteen-year-old at Ransom Everglades, laughs. She's ready to make the call -- in the service of journalism, of course -- and assures Kulchur that Twelve is "totally accurate." Ransom, whose Coconut Grove student parking lot is filled with BMWs and hulking SUVs, is awash in Ecstasy, Bonnie says. But there's plenty of marijuana too; you just have to be careful who you buy from. "My friend tried some with elephant tranquilizer in it," she adds, rolling her eyes.
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The prep life in New England isn't much different, concur Maria and Jacob, two seventeen-year-olds home for the summer from Massachusetts' Northfield Mount Herman School. And Miami Beach High, add Jordana, eighteen, and Eliza, sixteen, is hardly sheltered from the free-wheeling bacchanalia regularly staged just blocks to the south amid Washington Avenue's clubland.
But it's McDonell's new life -- his Entertainment Weekly feature, his NBC Today Show television interview, and the beckoning Hollywood players drawn by his ascendant fame -- that truly interests the room.
"All the clichés are true," McDonell says with a grin of the characters currently "banging on my door with a stick." And while he'd prefer to keep the focus on his book, "not where I'm from, or how good-looking I am," that kind of attention does have its upside -- Giorgio Armani gave him some free shirts to wear.
Still he's not too worried about it all going to his head. For his last meeting on selling Twelve's film rights, he may have felt like an adult when a certain high-powered Los Angeles agent flew out to personally meet with him at the St. Regis Hotel's august bar. But that agent then had to stride out to the sidewalk and escort McDonell inside, past a scowling maitre d'. Buzz-laden author or not, he adds wryly, he's still underage.