A Writer Looks at Privilege, Starting With His Own

From a New York Times book review by Jonathan Dee headlined “A Writer Scrutinizes Privilege, Starting With His Own”:

In the preface to his 11th book, the novelist and journalist Nick McDonell makes a very contemporary gesture of transparency by telling us how much he was paid to write it. In return, he pledges an “interrogation” of America’s most entrenched elite, the entitled, blue-blooded, white upper class of the East Coast, a class of which McDonell himself, by birth and upbringing, is firmly, if ambivalently, a member.

What follows, though — not necessarily to its detriment — is much more like a memoir than the sort of reform-minded analysis we might get from Thomas Piketty or Anand Giridharadas, two writers whose work McDonell cites. Made deeply uneasy by the entitlement of America’s ruling class — an entitlement he himself took for granted as a child — he doesn’t have any extraordinary insight into why things are the way they are, or how they might be made otherwise.

What he has, instead, are stories, primarily about his youth: school days at Buckley (an all-boys private school in Manhattan) and at Harvard, summers at the Devon Yacht Club, each of these places with its own eccentric customs and emphasis on “good manners,” even though the essence of membership in such institutions is the understanding that you can get away with anything.

He relates these stories with a wince, though little in them seems all that groundbreakingly depraved. He and his Buckley schoolmates referred to the cafeteria workers by an unkind nickname. He once went to a wedding reception where there were four bars. The rich have their own “concierge physicians.” Perhaps most provoking is the holiday trip on a private boat to the Galápagos Islands, toward the end of which McDonell’s host tried to bribe the local guides to let him hunt there.

In the end, the book’s interrogation feels directed more inward than outward. What McDonell is experiencing is pretty much what any sentient, conscience-burdened person raised inside institutions like these eventually experiences: the simple broadening of vision that comes with adulthood, the realization that these places weren’t, as of course they seemed when one was 6 or 13 or 20, merely “school” or “summer” or “vacation”; they were, and are, about the inherited mystification of power.

But you can’t be expected to contextualize your own life as a child. Not to mention that it is, as McDonell points out, perfectly possible to develop a deep skepticism about the institutions themselves while still holding onto love and gratitude for the people — the teachers, the nannies, the friends — who shaped one’s experience inside these institutions. This is what happens when we grow up; and in the last several years especially, a great many well-off white people have gone through the kind of self-reckoning McDonell conducts. His heart is certainly in the right place. No one, I think, will fault him for feeling what he feels.

What’s most remarkable about “Quiet Street” is not contained within it. McDonell reaped enormous benefits from having grown up in hyper-privileged circumstances; he sees that more clearly now, and he feels bad about it. And so, having unconsciously monetized these unearned advantages all his life (the story of his first novel’s publication is one for the Nepo Baby Hall of Fame), he now monetizes his consciousness of them, courtesy of corporate publishing, at a rate of roughly $1,495.73 per page.

The status quo and “interrogations” of it form a closed loop, and the same people keep benefiting. If McDonell is still looking for something to analyze, he might start there — which is to say, not in the unchangeable past, but in the maddeningly intransigent present.

Jonathan Dee is the author of eight novels, most recently “Sugar Street,” and the director of the graduate writing program at Syracuse University.

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