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Who Is Rich? by Matthew Klam

Published by Random House on July 4, 2017

Who is Rich? is narrated by Rich Fisher, a cartoonist locked in a middle-age crisis who teaches an annual “semibiographical comics” workshop at a summer arts conference. The other teachers range from nobodies a Pulitzer winner. Based on his one published book six years earlier, Fisher ranks himself among the has-beens. He has two children and a vanishing sex life.

Rich loves his wife, although they have the kind of biting conversations that couples with children often thrive upon. The conference gives Rich an annual opportunity to escape from his middle-aged responsibilities, much to his wife’s consternation. It also gives him an opportunity to pursue an affair, to find “a potential alliance in this war against morbidity and death.” One of his flings, with a woman named Amy, has gone on for some time and she continues to occupy his thoughts. Amy, in turn, views Rich as preserving her sanity, although she does not intend to leave her cold but wealthy husband despite her litany of complaints about feeling ignored and lonely.

Rich’s confrontations with his wife are uncomfortable to read, which is a tribute to their realism. Robin, Rich’s wife, is a less-than-ideal parent and Rich doesn’t know how to cope with her anger. Flashbacks take the reader through their courtship and marriage, demonstrating that Robin is high-maintenance and that Rich isn’t emotionally equipped to maintain her. Flashbacks also make clear that Rich sacrificed friendships and harmed his relationship with Robin by depicting the people in his life as unpleasant or foolish characters in his comic.

Who is Rich? Rich is a complete mess, a scattered man who is pulling himself in so many different directions he seems likely to be torn apart at the seams. He makes impulsive decisions that he immediately regrets. His encounters with Amy are the high point of his existence because they demand no responsibility. “I’d never have her, I’d never lose her. It wasn’t real, it didn’t matter, would never sour, never fail.” Of course, the reader knows that none of that is true. One of the things that Rich learns from a rival cartoonist, and that he experiences on his own, is that getting what you want is never as good as you expect it to be. But in most middle-age crisis novels, the protagonist learns a good bit more, and it isn’t clear that Rich is capable of internalizing any of the many lessons he should be learning.

The plot elements are typical of those of a family drama with the feel of a soap opera. The novel touches on familiar issues: dementia in an aging parent; the impact on parents of babies who don’t sleep through the night; the impact of quarreling children on parents; a man who cycles between the belief that he would never harm the family he cherishes and the belief that he needs a completely different life; marriage partners feeling lonely because they aren’t getting whatever they think they need. All of this has been done many times, but some of the details of Rich’s crisis-driven life, both interior and exterior, give the storya measure of freshness despite its familiarity.

Rich is intensely introspective and, at times, I found my attention wandering because he cared about his life much more than I did. That’s natural enough, but the writer’s job is to make the reader care, or at least to be absorbed in the narrative, and I was sometimes absorbed but other times not so much. A strong ending might have made a difference in my overall reaction, but the story fizzles out more than it ends. Stories about writers are often self-indulgent, and this one indulges a bit too much. The novel’s admirable strengths roughly balance its weaknesses, making it hard to recommend. Because it does have its virtues, however, I am recommending Who Is Rich? for readers who are prepared to accept its faults.


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