In 2000, Matthew Klam, then one of the New Yorker’s “Best Fiction Writers Under 40,” published a funny collection called “Sam the Cat.” The stories won prizes and got everybody excited for Klam’s next book. Which never came.
“Who Is Rich?” is about a writer who once enjoyed “precocious success” and then sank into obscurity. “I’d had an appointment with destiny,” the narrator says. “I’d barely started, then I blinked and it was over.”
We could speculate about how much this falls under the category of Write What You Know, but here’s what I do know: This is an irresistible comic novel that pumps blood back into the anemic tales of middle-aged white guys. Klam may be working in a well-established tradition, but he’s sexier than Richard Russo and more fun than John Updike, whose Protestant angst was always trying to transubstantiate some man’s horniness into a spiritual crisis.
“Who Is Rich?” takes place over a few days at an artists conference, one of those gilded summer retreats where hopeful adults of middling talent are taught by writers and painters of fading repute. In fact, Klam may not be invited back to Bread Loaf or Bennington or any of the other programs whose faculty he skewers so precisely, such as the instructor who “skipped his meds one year and wore a jester’s cap to class and lit his own notes on fire, and had to spend the night in a hospital.”
Klam’s narrator is a 42-year-old graphic novelist named Rich Fischer, who first signed on with this summer program years ago when he was the hot new thing. Now he’s just a poor illustrator for a failing political magazine — a crisply satirized version of the New Republic. As Rich readily confesses, he’s “an ordinary middle-aged man, unable to meet his responsibilities, jobless and abandoned, hurtling toward the last phase of doom.”
In paragraphs that flow like conversation with a witty, troubled friend, Klam captures Rich’s squirrelly consciousness, swinging from lust to despair, turning his comic eye on others and then on himself. Unhappily married with two insomniac toddlers, Rich has come “to perceive the lonely existence of fatherhood and monogamy as submission and defeat,” a position that conveniently casts adultery as an act of artistic heroism. He’s been looking forward to this year’s conference for months. It’s a chance to get away from his embittered wife, replenish his empty checking account and sleep with a depressed billionaire he met here last year. “Sex deprivation,” he admits, “had made me desperate, half-blind, and irrationally prone to fantasy, isolation, and cruelty.”
What could go wrong?
Amy, the wealthy woman he hopes to hook up with, is willing, but a freak softball accident early in the conference compromises her dexterity in bed. (Attention Bad Sex Award judges: There’s a passage here that likens their amorous activity to “a family of Chihuahuas molesting a turkey leg.”) Worse, Amy’s exotically privileged lifestyle exacerbates Rich’s sense of poverty and inflames his envy. “The power of her money made almost any interaction disorienting,” he says, “manifesting in feverish insecurity.” Despite her generosity, Rich can’t quite shake the humiliating sense that he’s involved in an illicit commercial transaction.
Although “Who Is Rich?” is spiked with moments of comic action and peppered with darkly witty drawings by John Cuneo, the whole novel is essentially a reflection on its title. Even as Rich wonders who he really is, he also contemplates who is actually rich in this emotionally impoverished world. “Obstructed by the limits of love, grasping at lust, scared to work on a crumbling marriage,” he harbors no illusions about his own value. He knows he’s an aging flirt who’s not going gently into that sterile night. As much as he adores his kids, their chronic sleep problems have desiccated his marriage, leaving him with a guilty thirst for physical contact. “Was it a good life?” he asks himself. “Was this as close to love as I was ever going to get? . . . Where were the cuties of my youth? Women in their forties had replaced them, hunching toward the grave.”
How much sympathy you feel for Rich may depend on how many years have passed since you divorced your first husband. Yes, he’s spoiled and selfish and shockingly immature, but he’s also disarmingly contrite, and it’s hard to accuse him of any lapse that he hasn’t already crucified himself for. He’s mastered that male art of moral self-defense through preemptive confession.
But for all its wise gender comedy, “Who Is Rich” is also a brilliant rumination on the trap of cannibalizing one’s life for art. The only success Rich ever enjoyed came from strip-mining his own experience, stealing his wife’s stories and betraying the confidences of his friends, “dumping in wholesale identifiable scenes and verbatim conversations.” (Seventeen years ago, relatives were complaining that Klam did this, too.) Now, as Rich considers how to resuscitate his dormant career, he contemplates writing about his adulterous adventures — an exposé that might bring him some success but would surely finish off his toxic marriage. And for what? Even as he starts making a few sketches, he admits how worn his subject is: “A woman of means and her dingbat boyfriend. Underlying theme: monogamy blows. Jeezum, how bold.”
It’s been almost 60 years since Rabbit ran away from his family in a fit of self-pitying terror, and Rich must see those old footprints in the ground. He knows he harbors the “malfunctioning psyche of an emotional cripple . . . predisposed to fantasy, pain avoidance, and cynicism.” That admission doesn’t absolve him, of course, but there’s something wonderfully humanizing about his candor. He’s infuriating; he’s us. Klam knows that’s sad. And rich, too.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
On July 14 at 7 p.m., Matthew Klam will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington. politics-prose.com.
By Matthew Klam
Random House. 336 pp. $27