- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 21, 2002


By Nick McDonell

Grove, $23, 244 pages


It is the dream of parents to give their children everything, whatever everything may be. However, it is simpler to turn everything into fancy cars, beautiful clothes, excellent schools, and a pretty face. Unfortunately, the novel "Twelve" is a dangerous depiction of why the closer one comes to everything, the further one travels from anything resembling humanity.
"Twelve" is a fast-paced novel centered around a young man, White Mike's search for his soul. The author, Nick McDonell, just 17 himself, is often cynical about his too real teenage characters. For example, they are all tremendously concerned with appearances and his females use their sex to get whatever they want.
Mr. McDonell describes his characters using their own shallow language. "Sara Ludlow is the hottest girl in school by, like, a lot." Claude, another typical McDonell creation, is a big handsome boy on vacation from his fifth year at a bad boarding school. He has neither emotions nor awareness.
Claude's friend Tobias is equally unreal and stunningly beautiful. Through these characters the author seems to be playing with questions regarding the nature of random acts of teen violence. Mr. McDonell appears to suggest that society has the ability to turn its youth into action-figure Barbies with barbaric capabilities, programmed to react immediately to a specific stimulus.
"Locking the door, Claude goes back to the closet, opens it, and admires how the candlelight shines along the steel weapons. He takes out the sword, razor-sharp from his furious sharpening that morning, and walks over to the mirror. He stands in it and takes off his shirt. He is wearing his jeans only, and he looks at himself in the mirror in the circle of candles, the sword in his hand. He looks quite attractive, like some sort of action hero at the climax of the movie. Just what he wants to look like. Claude is glad he stopped taking drugs. This is better."
Jessica is a character who is good in school and pretty though rapidly losing her way. She desensitizes herself from reality, convincing herself she is strong. "Strong eyes, you in the mirror. Stronger than all these kids, she is thinking. Strong enough to get into Wesleyan, strong enough to go to that shrink, strong enough to work this party, strong enough to get dressed. Strong enough to get whatever you want. Strong enough to get Twelve from the drug dealer. Strong enough to do whatever it takes. Strongest."
Mr. McDonell has chosen his writing to reflect the dialogue of adolescents the author being one himself. It is simple and clear, and desperately helpless. He takes his characters down a tunnel where once in, it is nearly impossible to escape from its inevitable climax of events.
Though it becomes apparent in the novel that "Twelve" is some sort of new, amazing mysterious mix of drugs, the meaning behind the author's choice of the word is left to the interpretation of the reader. "Twelve" is unique because it is a real novel, though not one many parents would be happy to see their own teenage children read. The irony is that Mr. McDonell has filled his book with adult themes without exaggerating the lives of adolescents in high school now. Perhaps a more suitable audience might be an open discussion psychology class.
What is most disturbing about the book is how accurately Mr. McDonell portrays the tragic whirlwinds befalling young adults today, specifically addressing a time when adolescents are left with no direction, too many material gratifications, while living amidst a society based strictly upon "want."
"So you were born in the capital of the world and you can never escape and that's how it is because that's how everyone wants it to be. It is all about want. No one needs anything here. It is about when you wake up in the morning and the snow is already coming down and it is bright between the buildings where the sun falls but already dark where the shadows are, and it is all about want. What do you want? Because if you don't want something, you've got nothing. You are adrift, you are washed away, and then buried under the snow and shadows. And when, in the spring, the snow melts, no one will remember where you were frozen and buried, and you will no longer be anywhere."
Mr. McDonell skillfully demonstrates how rapidly an individual can reach the point where he or she can no longer discern between the illusions society surrounds one with or the artificial constructs created in one's mind to deal with them. The novel like the characters contends with very heavy issues, yet somehow both reader and character do not cry and do not rethink any decisions they have made until the last page has passed.
In "Twelve," Mr. McDonell underscores the consequences of what happens to the individual when shallow and meaningless events unfold into real and deadly conclusions. He explores life, death, and the states of mind that are somewhere in between. Mr. McDonell adds insight into the troubles and tribulations of a group of people he intimately knows; it remains the duty of the reader to take note.

Winter Casey is a reporter on the foreign desk of The Washington Times.

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