The debut novel from New York humourist and Saturday Night Live writer Simon Rich is about unlimited wealth, which is a superb choice for an imagination as freewheeling and elastic as his.
In fact, he’s already written some brilliant short pieces about the delusional nonchalance that comes with being an old-money billionaire. A piece from Rich’s 2007 collection Ant Farm has the Sultan of Brunei asking one of his many concubines, “Do you want to see a movie or go bowling? Keep in mind that if you say bowling, one of my warriors will murder you.”
And make no mistake: in Elliot Allagash, the titular eighth-grader and his family are rich. Elliot’s father has a gallery full of paintings that he’s commissioned and never displayed, because “[t]here is nothing more decadent than unseen art.” For his fortieth birthday, he made a bunch of old rock bands reunite against their will. One entire room of the Allagash mansion is devoted to housing an apology note from John D. Rockefeller—the only one he ever wrote.
With unlimited prospects, however, comes unlimited boredom. So Elliot decides to amuse himself by using his resources and connections to transform his school’s resident loser, a chocolate-milk-guzzling schlub named Seymour, into the most popular kid in his class. A spot on the basketball team, perfect grades, the resident alpha male’s girlfriend: it can all be Seymour’s, as long as he does absolutely everything Elliot tells him to.
If Rich has dabbled in tales of the super-rich, he’s basically got a PhD in detailing adolescent neuroses. One of his finest skills as a comedy writer is seeing the messy adult world through the eyes of an earnest but naïve kid.
Still, as funny and frothy as Elliot Allagash can be—and it is frequently both of these things—it’s not quite the home run one might imagine. The jokes are numerous but broad; the characters serviceable but sketchy. It’s a book that’s easy to like but difficult to love.
Part of the problem is that Rich wants readers to really invest themselves in the particulars of Seymour’s life, from his initial awkwardness, to his dumbstruck delight at how easy the first successes come, to his regret about the growing number of people he has to step on to keep his reputation afloat. Both he and Elliot have additional parental angst that’s hinted at, but never properly explored.
That’s all well and good—mostly, though, I just wanted more jokes. More of Seymour’s note-perfect video game analogies. More riffs on Elliot’s unfamiliarity with the nuances of high school politics (“So that black child who’s always jumping up and down to touch the tops of things… that boy is considered powerful?”). Most importantly, more outlandish examples of what the Allagash family does with its money.
An analogue to this brisk novel is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” which has a similar set-up, but whose plot is inextricably linked to the gaudy opulence on every level. The family in that story makes its wealth by discovering a diamond literally the size of a mountain, and spends decades bribing land surveyors and shooting down every aircraft that might spy the property from the air. All ensuing chaos and comedy comes from justifying this initial premise.
In Elliot Allagash, on the other hand, the secret behind the family’s fortune is that on Christmas Day in 1800, Cornelius Allagash, thanks to a mishap while brewing bootleg moonshine, accidentally invented… paper. As a result, the Allagashes own “a portion of every envelope, a fraction of every baseball card.” They make money off of money itself.
It’s hard to know how to read this. Paper is obviously millennia old, not a few scant centuries—does Rich perhaps mean that Cornelius patented it? That’s not what he says, though. He specifically says “invent.” The reference to those first sheets looking like “the smooth fabric you found in a minister’s Bible” indicates that Rich understands how impossible this idea is. But if the central joke is nonsense, the entire world built on top of it becomes similarly unstable.
The scene is so off-putting, in fact, that it deflates nearly all of the momentum built up to that point while the reader lingers to try and puzzle out what, exactly, the joke is. In a book as smooth and limber as this one, that’s a problem indeed.
Random House, 240 pp, $26.95, hardcover
(review originally appeared, in a slightly different format, in The Edmonton Journal, July 11, 2010)Jul 9, 2010