The Third Brother is a strange, disparate novel made up of short, sharp chapters. Author Nick McDonell seems intent on framing his story around a series of punchy, sensory vignettes of Mike, his young main protagonist. Mike comes from a well-to-do family on Long Island, and Mike's father uses a college-buddy network to get his son a holiday job working for a magazine in Hong Kong. Mike is intitially thrilled at the idea, especially when the editor, Elliot Analect, sends Mike with a seasoned journalist to report on backpackers, prostitutes, and party drugs in Bangkok.
The real purpose of this expedition is to locate Christopher Dorr, a missing reporter. Analect, Dorr and Mike's father all went to college together, and Mike will slowly discover the complexity of the relationship between the three men,
as convoluted as it is mysterious. Mike becomes a tourist in Bangkok's
underworld where he experiences an urge to save as much as to describe. Among the seedy nightclubs and run-down hostels of Khao San Road, Mike meets a variety of shady characters.
Mike is a pure, young Harvard-educated snob, but his encounters in the back alleyways of Bangkok shape his reaction to his family and to the world around him. He hangs out with local journalists and hippie backpackers, survives some brushes with the law, and witnesses some ugly stuff such as drug deals, and even becomes attracted to a local prostitute.
Mike is as tangential to the hip scene around him as he is perennially inactive and indecisive. It's as though he
is on a dare to see how naughty he can really be, to see how far he can go, how much trouble a white kid from New York can actually get into: "is there a hole in the world so deep that my father can't rack me down and pull me out?"
Throughout the first half of the novel, McDonell immerses the reader in the sights, sounds, and smells of Bangkok and sets up an interesting juxtaposition between the native Thais, the Western backpacker kids eating their ecstasy pills, and the "farangs," the white men who don't know anything and yet get into trouble, and also the Thais who want to be like them – "yellow on the outside, white in the inside."
It's not that Mike believes in ghosts; it's that he knows you can be haunted, and when he finally returns home to New York disaster strikes.
His parents have been killed in a house fire, and his brother Lyle has become deranged, believing that the fire was caused by a "third brother." Mike ends up in Manhattan
on the day of September 11th, frantically searching for Lyle amid the dust, dirt, and debris
of the World Trade Center. The chaos of the day reflects the disarray of his own family.
When Mike looks at a snapshot of his family, he sees the potential craziness himself, "just like it was there in all of them."
In tightly measured and articulated prose, McDonell details a young man's journey through twenty-first century angst, exploring grief, "causalities and orders and children and friendly fire all interwoven in stupefied clouds of glassy smoke late at night." The chapters are short, with the novel divided into three heavily delineated sections, the prose moving effortlessly back and forth, providing a portrait of Mike's troubled psyche.
The death of Mike's parents and the Lyle's madness reopen old wounds, bringing to the surface what the protagonist so desperately wants to suppress. The challenge is to keep a story that spans two countries together, but
McDonell, using his impressive prose skills wisely, keeps the narrative fluid.
McDonell is also a sharp observer of human nature, and he manages to encapsulate all of Mike's youthful desires and insecurities, providing a portrait of a young man somewhat at a loss in the world, desperately searching for answers and for some kind of peace.