Nick McDonell has a personal, reportorial relationship with the settings in his novels: Twelve, his 2002 debut, is a scathing, unsentimental examination of privileged kids on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where McDonell was raised; The Third Brother (2005) focuses on a Harvard student sent on a magazine assignment to Bangkok, a milieu McDonell (as a Harvard student who’d once spent a summer in Bangkok) is more than qualified to describe; and his latest, An Expensive Education, is a thriller set in the contrasting (yet overlapping) worlds of his alma mater, Harvard, and northeast Africa, where the 25-year-old McDonell has spent considerable time as a freelance journalist for Harper’s and Time magazine, respectively. This intimate knowledge creates an air of realistic authority, even if the fictional characters dotting these landscapes sometimes seem too fantastical.
Michael Teak, the most redeeming character in An Expensive Education, is a Harvard graduate now working for the CIA in Africa. He’s a linguistics expert who’s one part James Bond and one part Jane Goodall. “His passion was reserved for zoology?but that wasn’t important enough work he decided.” With the help of his godfather, a CIA officer who also went to Harvard and was also a member of the fabled Porcellian finals club, Teak takes his impressive cache of skills and joins the intelligence agency. He’s been working the Kenya-Somalia border for a year when he’s directed to pay a well-known freedom fighter, Hatashil, $25,000 and give him a cell phone so the agency can remain in touch.
“Under the date palm tree three men sat on a thick but worn rug, sipping from small bowls of fermented camel milk. Two in full camouflage, one, whom Teak immediately picked for Hatashil, in a white djellaba?He carried a walking stick topped with some kind of skull, Teak couldn’t tell what species.”
The meeting is brief, and once Hatashil flips open the cell phone, “High above them, in one of the random afternoon cumulus formations, an alarm went off and a pilot adjusted his course.”
A bomb is dropped and the narrative is launched, guided by the questions “Who was responsible for the bombing? Was it the CIA? And was Teak, their man on the ground, considered expendable? Or was Hatashil in fact responsible? And what exactly are the motives behind his work? Is he a freedom fighter or a murderer of innocents?”
Susan Lowell, a Harvard professor with a Boston Brahmin name, staked her reputation on the former. She’s recently won a Pulitzer Prize for her book about Hatashil, but her work might soon be discredited if he’s outed as a ruthless opportunist. We’re asked to care, but that’s tough to do when Lowell’s all-encompassing interest in Africa is never explained; her motives are self-serving at best and murky at worst, a plague that afflicts most of the characters in this novel.
An Expensive Education is far from boring, shifting quickly between the intriguing, contrasting worlds of privileged, cloistered Harvard and war-torn Somalia. But the exacting, believable details expended on the Porcellian Club or on the climate and politics endemic to the Horn of Africa are (with the exception of Teak) notably absent from the lives of the central characters tossed into these respective milieus: Lowell, a 36-year-old with a husband and two kids who inexplicably devotes her life to African politics; a Somalian native named David Ayan, who comes to Harvard as a scholarship student and wants to make the right connections (the Porcellian Club; studying with Lowell) and learns that the bombing involving Teak and Hatashil has struck his home village; and David’s white girlfriend, Jane, a product of prep schools and Beacon Hill who writes for theHarvard Crimson and is shallow and paternalistic.
When Jane, riding in first class on a return flight from Africa (where Harvard students with good families and good connections can spend a working vacation investigating Somalian freedom fighters) reflects on the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it’s clear that McDonell is satirizing the segment of his alma mater that’s self-important and tied in, who take the superiority of their social class for granted.
hat day on the plane, flying to John F. Kennedy from Jomo Kenyatta by way of London’s Heathrow, she became extremely conscious of the 9/11 attacks in a new way. She drank more red wine than usual and she thought about sudden explosions, a rushing descent to earth that would seem to go on forever. The fear gave way to anger as she looked at her father gently snoring across the aisle. He worked in a finance tower, and now many of the people she knew at Harvard were to begin their own careers in finance, too. They all could have been killed.
She had known this before, but now she was furious. She suddenly understood vengeance. Like wanting to chew on something, snap it between her teeth. For the first time she wanted theatrics. How dare they? These cowardly Muslims who would murder her father, murder final clubs boys?murder all her friends who would be sitting at computers in downtown skyscrapers in the coming years? She wanted these Muslims punished, she wanted them executed.
“More wine?” asked the stewardess.
In Teak’s character, McDonell is making an earnest examination of identity, loyalty, and world politics. But with Jane and others, he’s often using the plot as a convenient send-up of Harvard pretensions. And when you satirize your class, background and alma mater (as McDonell has now done to varying degrees in all three of his novels), you run the risk of writing a book filled with unsympathetic characters. That’s what he’s done here, with the possible exception of Teak.
When McDonell, then just 17, published Twelve, his public identity became that of a literary wunderkind, a brash new talent whose publishing connections (his father is Sports Illustrated editor Terry McDonell) unavoidably colored people’s perceptions of his first book. The text — staccato sentences building to stunted, underdeveloped chapters — reinforced the book’s dark, disturbing theme of teenage disconnection. While the book had its flaws, most notably fruitless tangents and an over-the-top, cinematic conclusion, McDonell had produced a remarkable debut, an international bestseller that Joan Didion called “an astonishing rush of a first novel, all heat and ice and inexorable narrative drive…A pleasure to read, a horror to contemplate, a real achievement.”
But the spare, understated style appropriate to Twelve didn’t work as well in the wider world of The Third Brother (set largely in Bangkok before shifting abruptly to 9/11 New York City) and now looks somewhat threadbare when stretched across an international thriller involving Harvard, Africa, and espionage. While the narrative clips along at an entertaining pace, there are still needless asides, as when we bounce into the minds of throwaway characters, e.g., “(Jane) looked at her phone as the Gikuyu waiter brought her latte. The waiter paused for a moment, putting down the drink. The girl had a glow. Maybe she was pregnant. The waiter was glad he had read some Psalms that morning. He had a lot of tables just then but he wanted to sneak out to top up his cell phone at the supermarket across the street. He had to call his little brother, who was about to become a father for the first time.”
That’s the first and last time we encounter this waiter, and in a 294-page novel replete with white space and one-page chapters, these random jaunts really shouldn’t make the cut.
An Expensive Education ultimately belongs to Michael Teak, who emerges as the one character whom McDonell seems to love and whom he spends considerable time developing. If Teak here is stuck in the first installment of a Tom Clancy-like series, well, we can at least look forward to his return (in fuller bloom) in a later novel by McDonell.