Growing Up Rich

A First Novel From a Young Old Hand

By Dan Friedman

Published May 26, 2010, issue of June 04, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Elliot Allagash
by Simon Rich
Random House, 240 pages, $23

Simon Rich has it all: He’s very funny (in The New Yorker, writer for “Saturday Night Live”), fairly smart (though he went to Harvard, not Yale) and eternally youthful. He successfully completed a two-book deal from Random House, which he signed before he even left college — doing well enough that the publisher asked him to write a novel. Which he has done. And done pretty well.

Babyface: Rich makes comedy seem as simple as one baby stealing candy from a smaller baby.
DANA ADELSON
Babyface: Rich makes comedy seem as simple as one baby stealing candy from a smaller baby.

His previous two books, “Ant Farm: And Other Desperate Situations” and “Free-Range Chickens,” were slim collections of observations from unusual perspectives: What must a fourth-grader think when all the math he knows is rendered obsolete after calculators are given out? What are computer chips thinking when they are trying to defeat chess grandmasters? What would happen if, like roller coasters, other businesses mounted cameras at the most intense part of their experience?

What distinguished Rich’s books from less worthwhile books of that ilk was their consistency. The level of observation rarely, if ever, dipped below the acute; the economical, sometimes downright sparse, style meant that even commonplace observations were worth reading. (In the piece, “Frogs,” the first line is: “Hey, can I ask you something? Why do human children dissect us?”)And he captured the absurdity of everyday life as seen from either end of the spectrum of power: God on the one hand, kids and animals on the other. But these exercises were no proof that Rich could write a novel.

Despite blurbs promising hilarity, from Judd Apatow and Gary Shteyngart, along with the strange suggestion by A.J. Jacobs that this is “one of the funniest books about high schoolers since ‘The Catcher in the Rye,’” “Elliot Allagash” is more dark and absurd than hilarious.

Seymour Herson is a Jewish boy looking back at the past five years of school, in which he formed an unholy alliance with Elliot Allagash. The latter is a Machiavellian scion of a family that made money by accidentally inventing paper:

They owned wallpaper and Kleenex, magazines and newspapers, cards and checks and stamps.

They even owned money itself.

Seymour attends Glendale (an alternate form of Dalton, which Rich attended) and, until he befriends Allagash, has no redeeming characteristics, in fact few characteristics at all, save for ubiquitous victimhood. Allagash takes it as a challenge to make this nobody the biggest somebody at the school. It spoils little to note that his machinations are devious and successful.

The plot is a little dependent on set pieces, and some of the transitions through time are clunky, but the timing is neat and the tone is unremittingly offbeat. The characters are too much of a caricature to have psychological heft but are not, in the end, quite funny enough to move beyond the merely strange.

Novelist Rich, son of New York Times editorialist Frank Rich, made his own name from a comedy of adultly articulated childhood. In this novel, he moves to “Herson” from “his son,” to adulthood from childhood and to a smoothly executed novel from the piecemeal jokes of the Harvard Lampoon. He might even become as good at it as Apatow claims, once he gets some practice.

Dan Friedman is the arts and culture editor at the Forward.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.