An old-school coming-of-age novel on love and money that’s inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald? You could place one inside the noose of one of those jungle rope traps, and at the end of the day you’d find me there hung upside-down from the tree, turning the pages while struggling to maintain consciousness.
Sharon Pomerantz’s debut novel follows Robert Vishniak, a lower-class Philadelphia Jew growing up in the 1960’s. His father works like a dog at various blue collar jobs while his mother scrounges to stretch their meager dollars. Early on, Robert and his younger brother Barry are subjected to their pathological cheapskate mother’s chastisements, which cause the mantra of “make money make money make money” to be lodged in their heads forever.
Robert may not be well-off, nor he is all that clever, but he’s a hard worker and a very handsome fellow. The former gets him into Tufts University and the latter gets him into (ahem) far more confined spaces. The major road markers in this story are his romances: the unstable Brit, Gwendolyn; the daddy’s girl socialite, Crea; and the shoeshine girl from his hometown.
The only remarkable thing about Rich Boy seems to be its insistence on remaining traditional. It makes the book familiar comfort food for a reader like me. The downside is that it offers no surprises whatsoever, no major twists on the poor-boy-meets-rich-girl tale. Robert’s rise and his development are just interesting enough to keep this book on the nightstand.
He wants the better life–initially to get the hell away from his family back home, but then he seems to lose sight of exactly why he wants into the inner circle of the East Coast filthy rich. For the most part he is taken by the hand and brought into their world, first by Tracey (whose homosexual attraction to Robert makes for very interesting dynamics) and then by Crea, whom he later marries. But he builds a life around himself that, while throwing off the restrictions of being broke, stifles him with expectations and scrutiny.
This book is both ambitious and not. Rich Boy, being a character study on the American dream (not even updated…unless you call the sixties-eighties time period an update), is traversing the territory of the greats. But thank God it lacks a title, say, with the affected grandiosity of Ethan Canin’s America, America (another such novel that’s merely okay). I’m frequently reminded of what she lacks, like Sinclair Lewis’ satirical eye, Roth’s complexity, and Fitzgerald’s atmosphere. Her prose never rises above competent and often dips below that when it comes to dialogue.
Nearly every character is unlikeable, with the exceptions for me being the wrenchingly tragic Vishniak, Sr. and unapologetically pompous Tracey. I turned on Rich Boy whenever it made its unconvincing attempts to endear a character to me who really ought to be shoved down a flight of stairs. You don’t really want Robert for a friend, either, but a protagonist can afford to be unlikeable so long as he/she is still interesting.
I can’t imagine Rich Boy blowing anyone’s minds except those who haven’t already read its forebears, and would have loved them if so. It can’t stand among the classic American Dream novels, but the fact that it’s such a devoted homage to them makes it a decent read for the time.