Author Sees World Through Crimson-Colored Spyglasses

By Ron Charles
Wednesday, August 12, 2009


By Nick McDonell

Atlantic Monthly. 294 pp. $24

Nick McDonell was too young to have a drink at the party celebrating his first novel in 2002. But his publisher, Morgan Entrekin, made a toast anyhow and said he'd known McDonell since he was a baby. The author, then only 17 years from babyhood, sat on the stoop outside the restaurant and talked on his cellphone. Within a few months, "Twelve" was an international bestseller, but it was difficult to read clearly through the haze of fawning publicity and, of course, one's own seething envy. When McDonell's next book appeared in 2005, New York magazine ran a profile brilliantly titled, "Don't Hate Him Because He's Young, Good-Looking, Privileged, Impeccably Connected, and About to Publish His Second Novel."

Now 25, McDonell has finally reached an age at which it's no longer so freakish to write a good book, which is fortunate because he's done it again. "An Expensive Education," about a young intelligence agent from Harvard, is nothing groundbreaking -- for McDonell or the spy-novel genre -- but it's smart and sexy and could be the beginning of a franchise more lucrative than literary fiction.

The story opens explosively at a rebel camp somewhere along the Kenya-Somalia border. Michael Teak, a CIA agent posing as an environmentalist, makes contact with a celebrated freedom-fighter named Hatashil and passes along $25,000. But moments later, the camp is obliterated by air and ground forces. Thirty people -- many of them women and children -- are massacred. Teak barely escapes and can't imagine who might have ordered the attack.

One of the fascinations of this novel is how effectively it tracks distant events that resonate with one another around the world. Even while Teak is surveying the devastation of Hatashil's village, the story jumps to Harvard University. A gorgeous, hotshot professor named Susan Lowell has just won a Pulitzer Prize for her laudatory book about Hatashil. But at the swanky party in her honor, rumors are already circulating that she was dead wrong. "The freedom fighter is a warlord," a critic sneers. "She made us all believe, she even got the divestment movement started. She's been all over the press, she's practically the white face of Africa!" Now, the Pulitzer committee might be investigating allegations of fraud. Stories are leaking out -- from whom? -- that Hatashil isn't a liberator at all; he's a savage who massacred a whole village of his own wives and children.

With these two very different settings, "An Expensive Education" blends a terse story of international intrigue with a biting satire of Harvard, from which McDonell graduated in 2007. As he's shown in his previous novels, he can be a ruthless chronicler of America's aristocratic culture. The young scholars who strut through this novel are wholly self-absorbed, cynical and dissipated -- nice compensation for all of us who couldn't get in. An opportunistic young woman who writes for the Harvard newspaper offers convincing proof that it's possible to be very brilliant and very shallow at the same time. A couple of tuxedo-wearing lushes who traipse from pub to pub dropping arch quips and calling each other "old sport" seem to have stumbled out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald story. "They were all lucky," McDonell writes, "that everything was so funny."

That cool irony charges every page as McDonell casts scenes with just a few evocative details. We see hard-bodied students running on treadmills while they watch news of distant wars on TV. Later, "in a room concealed behind a bookcase they smoked a spliff, their ashtray made of a rhino's foot." It's all so gracefully damning. The novel concentrates with particular contempt on the network of old boys' clubs in all their blue-bloody weirdness. Under a facade of honor and bonhomie, these organizations guide the sons of privilege through Harvard into the right internships and then on to lucrative businesses, including the CIA.

It's tempting to speculate what drives McDonell to continue, book after book, to eviscerate the culture that cradled him and continues to offer him all its benefits. How, I wonder, does he keep telling friends and family, "Oh, no, I'm not talking about you."

But, of course, there is one admirable Harvard grad here: Teak, the golden-haired idealist -- what do you know, the same age as McDonell -- who went into the intelligence service to serve his country. He's the kind of fantasy hero half of us want to be and the other half want to be with. In a series of spare flashbacks, we see how he was recruited and groomed for the agency. A stellar athlete, a master of many languages, even "a good drinker," he's principled, taciturn, good with children and, of course, strikingly handsome. Ladies, he's also a good dancer. Hollywood heartthrobs must be lining up already for the inevitable movie version.

McDonell is stingy with the action sequences, but when they come, they're swift and hot, showing us how Teak strikes, kills and subdues with awesome precision. It would seem silly if McDonell didn't write with such disciplined restraint, and fortunately he's far more interested in showing Teak wrestling with his conscience than with his enemies. This brave Harvard grad just wants "to be decent, do good work," but "the slow corrosion" of carrying out his country's orders is taking a toll. And if you know anything about spy novels, you know how things heat up when an agent tries to come in from the cold.

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