Klam’s “Who is Rich?” de­scribes the mid­dle-aged white man’s rab­bit hole

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Ron Charles


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.

Un­til now.

“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 sum- mer 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-yearold 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, half­blind, 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 pre-emp­tive 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.

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