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Review of An Expensive Education

An Expensive Education
By Nick McDonell
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2009

Near the beginning of Nick McDonell’s third novel An Expensive Education, an Adonis-like Harvard-groomed intelligence operative named Michael Teak shares his strategy for getting through sticky situations:

Teak had developed a trick in college for speaking with authority. When he decided to talk in class, he would often begin by saying something like “there are really three important points.” Even if he didn’t know what the points were, he’d come up with them. He believed that breaking his argument into numbers forced people to pay attention. How you said something could be more important than what you said.

The thoughts are meant to be revealing and ironic, because Teak is outwardly a bionic figure who singlehandedly exposes top-level conspiracy in the Horn of Africa, but they have dispiriting resonations for the reader. In this chic, disingenuous novel, McDonell spends a great amount of his energy impressively pretending to know what he’s talking about.

The biggest part of the put-on is the plot, which is triggered by an airstrike in a remote spot of Somalia against an anti-government militia leader named Hatashil. This Hatashil had previously enjoyed the tacit support of the United States, but now, for reasons only at first guessed, American sentiment has turned against him, and the attack is spun in the news as a massacre of innocents perpetrated by Hatashil himself. Embroiled in the change of allegiances are a number of people affiliated with Harvard, the focal point of McDonell’s attention: Susan Lowell is a Pulitzer Prize winning professor who wrote a book lionizing Hatashil as a freedom fighter; David Ayan is an ambitious underclassman who grew up in Hatashil’s corner of Africa; Jane Baker, as her deliciously WASPy name announces, is a Cybill Shepherd lookalike and crusading reporter for the Harvard Crimson; and Teak is a gifted alum who’s been selected from the campus talent pool to be a kind of black-op – and who happened to be present at the attack.

All of this is fun enough and would be inoffensively escapist, but as Teak goes on the safari of skullduggery so frequently trod by Ludlum and Le Carré, McDonell purports to reveal the geopolitical machinations engineered over drinks in Cambridge clubs and offices. On one hand, we get lots of silly spy-thriller boilerplate like this:

Alan Green had seen some evil in his life. He had seen murder, the quick departure of a man’s soul from his body (sweating, lashed to a splintered chair and beaten) before the ruined eyes of the man’s sister. He had never taken pleasure in being party to such departures, or the suffering that often preceded them, but he believed in their necessity.

But a page later, with po-faced Syriana solemnity, McDonell discloses how world events are really orchestrated by the best and the brightest of Harvard’s exclusive Porcellian club. The arch self-importance that overruns this books could only come from a Harvard graduate, and An Expensive Education is the sort of “exposé” that is actually meant to enhance the Harvard mystique.

But there won’t be much enhancing going on for McDonell’s reputation as a writer, as the prose here makes you yearn for the skillful hand of Robert Ludlum, to say nothing of John Le Carré. As An Expensive Education progresses it devolves into a flipbook of page-long scene breaks that bear an unholy resemblance to the fun-sized chapters in a James Patterson production, except without a trash novelist’s basic humility. And when McDonell feels sufficiently on a roll in his oh-so serious shtick to wax philosophical about death and grieving – “It may be that death is nothing, that it is merely another phase of disintegration, another pose for the ashes and dust on their return from two feet to space” – you want only to tell him, Jesus kid, time to grow up and quit the bullshitting.

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