This Week's Reads

Nick McDonell, Chris Ayres, and Elina Furman.

The Third Brother

By Nick McDonell (Grove, $22) Though his novel's climactic scenes set in Manhattan on 9/11 are the most worthless words yet written about the tragedy, Nick McDonell's second book is not a failure simply because it tastelessly attempts to filch some shreds of significance out of the smoking debris. Nor for trying to puff up the already considerable self-importance of his puny fiction. It's a failure from page one, utterly lacking any virtue except a disagreeable slickness. If McDonell's triumphant debut, the bad-rich-boy- coming-of-age novel Twelve, had not been so precocious (he was 17!), we could wish that his sophomore effort represented the end of a literary career. But since he did pull off that stunt with panache, let's just pray that he never writes anything one-twelfth as wretched as this ever again. Though The Third Brother regrettably exists, the third brother the title refers to does not. He's just a figment of the imagination of the first brother, Lyle. Lyle is a sensitive, wacko loser. Lyle's younger brother, Mike, is the protagonist, like McDonell a winner, a rich Harvard kid whose parents are masters of the Manhattan universe. (McDonell's dad, Terry, runs Sports Illustrated; his publisher, Morgan Entrekin, is godfather to his brother, as was Hunter S. Thompson, whose kind words blurbed Twelve alongside those of snug family friend Joan Didion.) Crazy Lyle burns down their parents' posh Long Island home and blames the deed on the imaginary third brother. He goes to lower Manhattan to recuperate and regather his marbles, and wouldn't you know it? The World Trade Center near his apartment gets terror-struck. Mike then makes a scary trek into the disaster in search of his brother. This must make some kind of deep emotional sense to McDonell, but on the page it's just arch, arbitrary, and unresolved. The description of Gotham power-elite folkways is drab and hackneyed, the 9/11 passages lack drama, and no character or incident is interesting in any way. The narrative keeps flashing back between the present, tritely rendered in Bret Easton Ellis/Jay McInerney present tense, and Mike's troubled family history, sort of a boring Rick Moody–ish litany of dysfunction. Then there are subplots about the father's brotherlike Harvard cronies and Mike's magazine internship in Asia (the latter of which reads like a flavorless rip-off of Alex Garland and the usual exotic- fiction suspects). I don't resent McDonell's lucky life. I'm just bitter that I wasted a day of mine reading his silly book. TIM APPELO Nick McDonell will appear at University Book Store, 7 p.m. Thurs., Sept. 8. War Reporting for Cowards

By Chris Ayres (Atlantic Monthly Press, $24) The current Iraq war is a shameful, bloody, awful, serious business. And then, at other times, it's not. It may seem wrong to venture onto the comic side of that conflict, in which almost 2,000 U.S. troops have died to date, but every other war waged by mankind has had its laughs. (Think of Put Out More Flags, Catch-22, or M*A*S*H.) In this engagingly self-mocking memoir by a young English correspondent who had absolutely no business being on the front lines (and he knew it), Chris Ayres treats the combatants with respect. Of himself, he writes, "But I was scared; scared of losing my new career as a foreign correspondent; scared of someone else taking my place and doing well; and scared of squandering an opportunity that many reporters worked their whole lives to get." Oh, and the prospect of death frightens him, too. Instead, by accident, he follows low-level news assignments from The Times (London)on Wall Street and in Hollywood with instant deployment to Kuwait and a shopping list he can't understand forward or backward. ("Dude, what the hell is a MOPP suit?" a California store clerk asks. It takes another 20 pages to find out.) Ayres pointedly sees himself among the soft, cushioned children of Thatcher and Reagan—"war virgins: never drafted into military service; never invaded by a foreign army; never expected to defend their countries with their lives." So for him, like the U.S. Marine artillery troops with whom he's embedded, it's a bit of a shock to experience war unmediated by CNN, PS2, or Rambo. Half deafened by the big guns going off, he can only compare the sound to a Keith Richards concert. Much of the book's drama, when he finally reaches the Iraqi desert for a brief, truncated foray into combat, has to do with charging his laptop and satellite phone. He's left the cubicle behind, but not the paper cuts. Ayres is frank about his own insignificance; after a while, however, you realize that's because his term in Iraq was pretty insignificant—only nine days in the field, unlike war correspondents like Jon Lee Anderson or John F. Burns. For this reason, he freely pads his combat reporting with a bit of family history, dating mishaps, and the chronicles of a bungling young journalist (kind of like Bridget Jones's Diary for guys). Yet he happened to be in lower Manhattan for 9/11, and his account of reporting there that day—away from his cubicle for once—is excellent. You don't mind the padding because Ayres is so friendly and unpretentious about his accidental profession. Meeting a haggard veteran reporter who gladly traded wife and family for the dangers and constant travel of this "great job," he scoffs, "Being Bono was a great job." I'll bet there are a lot of soldiers out there who think just the same thing. BRIAN MILLER Boomerang Nation: How to Survive Living With Your Parents . . . The Second Time Around

By Elina Furman (Fireside, $14) Still living with your parents? Check. College diploma in hand? Check. Feeling a little like a directionless failure who might never make it on your own? Check. This is the book for you. Boomerang Nation addresses the problems facing young—and not so young—adults who have moved back to the family nest for the second, third, or "Oh-you're-back-again" time. It gives commonsense advice for both parent and child to manage the situation, while also encouraging that gentle shove out the door. Parents will be heartened to learn that this book isn't merely a mooching manual for kids unaccustomed to paying their own cable bill. Not only does it offer the stepping-stones for moving on in an increasingly daunting world of low salaries, high rent, and high unemployment (hence the extended period of dependency), it treats Mom and Dad like people, too. Supposedly extracted from Elina Furman's postcollegiate experience living with her mother until age 29, her advice is somewhat obvious: Make an agenda, get organized, keep the channels of communication open. Harder is for both parties to exist as equals, especially after a lifetime of free meals, clothes, and braces. Furman readily acknowledges that this isn't easy, especially for kids who have lived on their own and now, coupled with a plummeting sense of self-worth, must follow their parents' rules again. But she makes the bold statement that young adults still have something to learn from their parents. The best way to get them off your back when they're nagging you to party less and work harder is to do just that. Thus, Furman can refer to her own story—on her own at last!—to shatter the horrific stereotype that twentysomethings living with their parents again are doomed to loserdom. And she still gets along with her family. Given today's economy and cost of living, it's nice to believe that "boomerangers" can have a second chance, even after life has kicked them back to their parents' curb. DARBY REED

 
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