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The Son Also Rises

Tue, 01/02/2024 - 13:17
Nick McDonell
Roopa Gogineni

“Quiet Street”
Nick McDonell
Pantheon, $26

The Nick McDonell book "Quiet Street: On American Privilege" sees him examine a life spent among the one percent, retracing his steps on the Upper East Side, at Harvard and Oxford, and at exotic locales around the world, and wondering how the world would be different if the elite didn't work so hard to keep everyone else out of what he refers to as "The Bubble."     

The book's title comes from a nickname for 124th Street in Harlem dating back to the author's time at the Buckley School in Manhattan. A school bus would transport the Buckley boys down 124th Street, en route to the ball fields on Randalls Island. Years before, a student yelled a racial slur out the window, and Nick and his fellow students were then required to remain silent for as long as the bus drove down 124th Street.     

"Quiet Street was the manifestation of a culture that preferred silence to discussion of race and class," McDonell writes.     

He is the first to admit he's had a charmed life. His father is the well-regarded magazine editor Terry McDonell, who had leadership roles at Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone. Family connections and true talent have resulted in a vast oeuvre for Nick. His debut novel, "Twelve," came out when he was a teen, years before the term "nepo baby" was hatched. Subsequent novels include "The Third Brother" and "The Council of Animals," and he has authored four more books on his time spent covering wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.     

As a boy, he spent his summers at the Devon Yacht Club in Amagansett, taking part in the junior yacht program. "The planks of the dock were warm under our feet and the day was divided: sailing, swimming, tennis, and lunch — arts and crafts only if it rained," he writes.

The club had a fireworks show on the Fourth of July, organized by the writer and editor George Plimpton, a close friend of Nick's parents.     

McDonell would typically spend summers working as a busboy at Maya's, a restaurant in Wainscott. One summer, he convinced his parents to let him write a novel instead. He penned "Twelve," about Upper East Side elites and a designer drug, and his parents passed it along to a friend in publishing. The man offered the teenager a $25,000 advance. McDonell then sold the movie rights.     

He moved on to Harvard and saw how the one percent seemed to have its own one percent, in Harvard's all-male "final clubs." He was recommended for one club — he suspects it was Plimpton himself who recommended him — but was not ultimately invited to join, an uncommon setback for young McDonell.     

Just out of college, he found himself on an island off Kenya. He had written a novel about his reporting exploits overseas. Hanging out at a posh hotel in Lamu, he met a movie producer and sold the rights.     

He next landed an internship at Time, based in Hong Kong. Before long, he was attending grad school at Oxford. He defended his thesis before a trio of professors, who promptly offered him a spot in the doctoral program, to develop his thesis into a book. He turned them down, because he'd rather focus on a TV show he was producing, and he knew he could get a book published on his own.     

Over time, The Bubble that McDonell referred to transitions to The Fortress — a bastion that's even harder to break into than The Bubble.

While he is quick to acknowledge having been born on third base, the reader may eventually tire of his boundless good fortune. He offers an endless litany of his professional successes, and insights into the one-percent life that are not all that insightful. "Soldiering, finance, art, politics, academia, show business — whatever the profession, one percenters were disproportionately successful," goes one.     

Another insight notes, "Elite children tended to love their nannies." Toward that end, McDonell visits his former nanny, Adella, at her home in Jersey City. They have lasagna and pineapple juice and talk about the old times on the Upper East Side. Kindly, Adella tells Nick he's the only child she took care of who stays in touch with her.

As the book winds down, he checks in with his old Buckley mates, an effort to fact-check his own memories and to get their takes on the unique lives that had been laid out before them. One recalls, "I'm not sure it's good for anybody to be part of something that so self-consciously is designed to produce people who run the world."  

"Quiet Street," at a wispy 117 pages, is a fast read. As his numerous published works might suggest, McDonell's writing is smooth and eminently readable. The book offers countless examples of how the elite live their lucky lives, but a few more ideas about how to bridge the wealth inequality in New York and beyond might've done greater good.      

Michael Malone has written for The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times. A native Long Islander, he regularly reviews books for The Star.     

Nick McDonell has family in Amagansett.

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