The Third Brother

bq. McDonell's first novel, published when he was 17, was an acclaimed 300,000-copy bestseller—a daunting achievement for this emotionally intricate but iffy sophomore effort to match. The author of Twelve, now 21, is a bit too experienced to be a boy wonder, but he's not quite a mature writer, a 'twixt phase that bedevils this novel about tragic family secrets, sibling madness and the abrupt onset of adult responsibility. Part one of the rat-a-tat-tat tale—most chapters are two or three pages—is set in Thailand, where Mike, a well-bred Harvard freshman interning for the summer at a Hong Kong magazine, is researching a story on stoned Western travelers. Part two takes place back in Manhattan as September 11, 2001, nears: Mike's quarrelsome parents are dead in a house fire and his revered older brother, perhaps responsible for the blaze, is prone to paralyzing hallucinations. McDonnell has a knack for capturing place with sharp-eyed, vivid prose: scenes set in Bangkok's whirl of sex and drugs, and his evocation of 9/11 disbelief and horror are both charged with a reality that's reportorial in its authenticity. But the two halves of the novel, linked loosely by Mike's search for the truth about his family, don't quite gel.