On “Quiet Street” – Chicago Review of Books


There’s a certain serenity implicit on a “quiet street.” A quiet street is calm, peaceful; perhaps even a bit dull in its lack of activity. Such an atmosphere seems an appropriate place from which to reflect on past experience, as Nick McDonell does in his memoiristic exploration of the one percent, Quiet Street: On American Privilege. The understated nature of the title, along with the slimness of the book, effectively lulls the reader to sleep, only to have them be greeted by a preface that features our author inventorying corpses during the early days of the pandemic. It’s an appropriately discomfiting introduction to McDonell’s somewhat ironically titled book, as it quickly becomes apparent that there’s nothing quiet about the one percent’s deceptively cordial appearance. “There is a violence to good manners,” writes McDonell. “In certain contexts, a properly executed handshake [sends] a message not unlike a snake’s rattle.”

Quiet Street is the ever-prolific Nick McDonell’s 11th book. At the ripe old age of 39, McDonell has already published four novels, the first of which he wrote at 17, and five works of nonfiction on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where McDonell was embedded as a reporter. Amid his countless projects, he even found time to write a work of cultural anthropology on nomadism.

Giving credit where credit is due, McDonell’s resume is, assuredly, as lengthy as it is impressive. But focusing solely on McDonell’s CV obscures the giant, nepotistic elephant in the room: Nick McDonell is the son of editorial titan Terry McDonell, who has edited magazines from Rolling Stone, to Newsweek, to Sports Illustrated, to Esquire, where he served as editor-in-chief. Terry McDonell also helped found Literary Hub in 2015, and he still looms large as a prominent, powerful media executive.

Terry McDonell’s many accomplishments may seem irrelevant to his son Nick’s newest book, but seeing as how it’s an autobiographical exploration of privilege, it seems appropriate to begin with Terry, the source of Nick’s privilege, the reason why Nick McDonell attended the prestigious Buckley School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side—Buckley’s alumni include multiple Rockefellers, Roosevelts, and even Donald Trump Jr.—before McDonnell eventually, inevitably, wound up at Harvard; an Ivy League underclassman with a novel released by a major publishing house. His debut was blurbed by everyone from Hunter S. Thompson, to Richard Price, to Joan Didion. They were friends of the family.

“I became, in a small way, a symbol of privilege,” writes McDonell in Quiet Street, reflecting on the novel that catapulted him to literary fame. “I wrote a coming-of-age novel that both critiqued the Upper East Side elite and exemplified its insularity.” And while McDonell may be speaking of the book’s actual content, that insularity was probably best reflected in the rare ease of the novel’s publication journey: “In September,” says McDonell in Quiet Street, “when I finished the manuscript, my parents read it, liked it, and sent it to a close friend who owned a publishing house […] The publisher soon invited me to his paper-strewn office off Union Square, where he offered me twenty-five thousand dollars to publish the book.” The novel flew off the shelves, quickly selling hundreds of thousands of copies, and McDonell traveled around the globe, as a teenager, to sign books and give readings. Meanwhile, he sold the novel’s movie rights and signed a deal on a second novel. Again: McDonell was still a teenager.

In one of many attempts at self-awareness that appear throughout Quiet Street, McDonell tries to reflect honestly on the inception of his literary fame: “My book was published because I had the connections to get it looked at,” he writes. “I began to see how, in the United States of America and elsewhere, success almost always, and predominantly, depends upon wealth—and frequently comes at the expense of the less wealthy.” You can be forgiven for rolling your eyes at the obviousness of McDonell’s pronouncement. Most people likely have much less circuitous, and much less lucrative, journeys to such realizations. It’s also unclear just how much McDonell receives his own message, seeing as how he dedicates all of about a page to the publication of his debut novel, which was the genesis of his fame and the epitome of his titular “American Privilege.”

It’s easy to poke fun at McDonell, to find fault in his, per the back cover, “bold and deeply personal exploration of the one percent.” Because despite the fact that McDonell includes a quote from a friend calling a draft of the book a “Sarcastic, dark insider’s view of privilege,” I’m not sure how “sarcastic” McDonell’s work really is. There’s a certain level of earnestness inherent to anything truly personal, and I’d think it’d be rather hard to mock and reveal oneself simultaneously. McDonell can’t have it both ways, and I’m not sure he fully commits to either side.

All that said—and there’s certainly plenty to say about a young writer who, at 21, was the subject of New York Magazine articles with titles like: “Don’t Hate Him Because He’s Young, Good-Looking, Privileged, Impeccably Connected, and About to Publish His Second Novel”—Quiet Street does boast some notable triumphs. The most prominent of which is its focus on a theme that recurs throughout the book’s brisk, 119-pages: Violence, particularly as it pertains to the inner-workings of the one percent. This is exemplified in the aforementioned “violence of good manners” McDonell deftly unpacks, but the theme appears again and again, in everything from the one percent’s violent environmental degradation; to its fixation on taxidermy; to its cruel, racist appropriation of Black culture, as McDonell describes it at the Buckley School: “I often thought the behavior of the prep school gangsters stemmed, in part, from anxious lives at home. And being anxious all the time, they were perhaps more prone to fear white America’s historical other—Black people—and so mimed a fantasy of them, to hide their fear and raise themselves up, in a tradition of evil violence they did not understand.” McDonell dedicates a huge portion of the book to his time at Buckley, and he even includes a chapter of quotes directly transcribed from interviews with his classmates. These quotes are illuminating in the way they unpack how exactly Buckley would shape its students into, as they put it, “leaders.” 

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“I do think that I’m a competitive person,” said one anonymous interviewee, “and I think that was amplified [at Buckley]. Or maybe even created.” “The one thing that Buckley really hammered down,” said another alumnus, was that “they wanted to make leaders.” Some interviewees were more skeptical of their Buckley experience: “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,” said one classmate. “I think a lot of people would have been better off with an idea that they’re just…ordinary people.” But, of course, nothing was ordinary about Buckley students, not their background, not their wealth, and not even, fascinatingly, their size: “I feel like [our headmaster] had some sort of uncanny ability to pick young boys who would turn into very large young men,” said one classmate. “Our football team, our wrestling team, just trounced other teams in sports. It was humiliating for other schools.” Another interviewee spoke of being so concerned about his diminutive stature relative to his classmates that he had his mom take him to the doctor: “Your son is fine,” the doctor told the boy’s mother, “He’s in the 75th percentile of height. He is above average.”

McDonell’s book is meticulous in the way it details the origin stories of these, quite literally, larger-than-life figures, most of whom are descended from similarly larger-than-life figures. They’re taught from a young age to not just win, but to dominate, and it’s resultantly unsurprising that, in McDonell’s words, “the one percent maintained a monopoly on violence” as it had “cultural ties to—as well as financial and political control of—the apparatuses of state violence.” Many of McDonell’s interview subjects said that Buckley wanted to make leaders. At the risk of sensationalism, McDonell’s works shows how it might be more appropriate to say that institutions like Buckley create killers.

Quiet Street: On America Privilege
by Nick McDonell
Published August 22nd, 2023


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