Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Book Review: "Who is Rich?" by Matthew Klam

If people were happy with their lives, if they weren't having to deal with crises of conscience, relationships, and faith, what would that mean for the state of fiction? Much in the way that evil characters are more fun to read (and write) about, unhappy characters definitely provide a richer mine from which to build a novel.

Rich Fischer, the protagonist of Matthew Klam's Who is Rich?, is definitely unhappy. At one point he was a cartoonist of some renown, but he now works as an illustrator at a magazine which covers politics and culture.

"Illustration is to cartooning as prison sodomy is to pansexual orgy. Not the same thing at all."

The only thing really left from those better days is that every summer he travels to New England to teach a four-day cartooning workshop at a week-long arts conference. It's not the most fulfilling opportunity, but it does get him away from his family and from the constant problems weighing on his mind and his psyche.

"I wasn't a teacher. I didn't belong here. I'd ditched my family and driven nine hours up the East Coast in Friday summer highway traffic so I could show off in front of strangers, most of whom had no talent, some of whom weren't even nice, while I got paid almost nothing."

Rich and his wife Robin are unhappily married and on the verge of utterly resenting each other full time. Their two young children have their own dysfunctions, and how the couple chooses to handle (and/or ignore) these issues adds more strain to their exasperating relationship. Money is always tight, their sex life is almost non-existent, and both are often bitter, about their relationship and their lives.

"Was it a good life? Was I more joyful, sensitive, and compassionate in my deeply entangled commitment to them? Was there anything better than seeing the world through the eyes of my nutty kids? Was my obligation to Robin the most sincere form of love?...Was this as close to love as I was ever going to get? The closer I got, the more I wanted to destroy the things I loved. Something rose up in me, threatening me. I had to deflect it somehow."

There is one bright light drawing him back to the workshop this year—Amy. Amy is a painting student whom Rich met at last year's workshop, and they shared a flirtation, a little bit more than that, and then spent the winter alternately texting and longing to see each other, and punishing themselves for wanting this. She lives in a wholly different world than Rich—Amy is married to an extremely wealthy, reasonably loathsome Wall Street magnate who is barely home, and rarely pays attention to her and their children when he is. And as much as Amy wants more, wants something different, she isn't sure if she deserves that, and if so, if Rich is that something different.

This is an interesting meditation on monogamy, marriage, children, middle-age, financial success, and whether abandoning your dreams for something more stable makes you a sell-out or a failure. It's also an exploration of what kind of happiness we should expect from life—should you take what you're given or should you hope for more?

Klam is an excellent writer. I read his story collection, Sam the Cat: And Other Stories, about 17 years ago, and he's been one of those writers I've been waiting for years to write another book. This definitely didn't disappoint, although it's a bit more of a downer than I expected. Given the subject matter, it's not too surprising, but I felt the book flowed a lot more slowly because of its morose tone. There are moments of lightheartedness, even humor, but the dilemma that Rich and Amy find themselves in, and Rich's own struggles tend to take more precedence, at least early on.

Who is Rich? definitely made me think, and helped me keep the challenges of my own life in perspective. And isn't that why we read sometimes, to make us feel better about our lives than those the characters are living?

NetGalley and Random House provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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