In her first novel, Rich Boy, Sharon Pomerantz has gone after a large American theme, one many recent writers have been reluctant to address. In this big book, Pomerantz writes about class–that often unspoken division in our democracy that keeps people separated along lines of education and expectation. And, of course, money.
If an American has any hope at all of jumping up the ladder of class distinction, he is going to need some money. Usually a lot of money. Even with that, there is no guarantee he’ll actually be accepted on the higher rung. He will need some other qualities, like Pomerantz’s Robert Vishniak, who is good-looking and sensitive, who knows when to keep his own counsel and when to express an opinion, who knows the kinds of education to get and when to suppress any easy idealism, who recognizes love when he experiences it but who can put his emotions in their place when his career might demand it. Even though we recognize his mercenary motivations, we can’t help but like him in some perverse way. These are skills, Pomerantz reminds us, that on some level we have been taught to value.
Vishniak rises from a lower-middle-class Jewish neighborhood in Philadelphia, where his parents work hard at almost menial jobs, count every penny, and deny themselves almost every pleasure. He escapes through college and law school to New York in the 1980s, where “to be Robert Vishniak…in the summer of 1986 was to be faced with endless temptation.” Along the way, he has known his first love, made his first compromises, and has married the daughter of one of the founders of a large law firm. He learns to live with it: “Comfort had never been hard for him to adjust to.” We know where this is going, right? He’s headed for a fall. But the strength of Sharon Pomerantz’s Rich Boy is that the reader is not able to distance himself from Vishniak. Even when we dislike him, there is just enough in his character and his way of acting to make him familiar. We may not trust him, but we wouldn’t mind having dinner with him.
Rich Boy is a significant addition to the American literature of class, but it is also an exact portrait of the years of Robert Vishniak’s rise and fall–that vivid quarter century from the sixties almost through the eighties. Pomerantz does a lovely job of capturing the music, the drugs, the politics, the tragedies, the superficialities, and the forced profundities of those years. Manhattan comes back in its seedier, graffitied, slightly frightening version of twenty-five years ago. I found myself feeling a bit nostalgic for it.
Sharon Pomerantz participates in a panel on historical fiction at the Kerrytown BookFest on Sunday, September 12, and reads from Rich Boy at Nicola’s Books on Tuesday, September 14.