By Sharon Pomerantz
Twelve, 517 pages, $24.99
The scene comes near the middle of Sharon Pomerantz’s sprawling new book, “Rich Boy,” and one slice of dialogue captures the central tension in this page-turning debut novel. Robert Vishniak, the protagonist, is driving a cab through the dangerous streets of 1970s Manhattan — bearded, depressed, nearly broke and living in a hellhole of an apartment on the Upper West Side — when his younger brother, Barry, shows up after dropping out of college.
Robert at least had graduated from a fancy private university and was the first in their family to even attend college. For him, it had been a challenge more social than academic, accomplished only by suppressing his lower-class upbringing and willing himself to become someone new. His brother, in a different but no less privileged college environment, could not manage that — or didn’t want to. He couldn’t abide the attitude.
“What kind of attitude?” Robert asks.
“I don’t mean to smear our people, but honestly, sometimes I thought the Jews were the worst,” Barry answers, then goes on. “Their doctor and dentist parents worked their way through school, but now they want their babies to go in style. They send them with stereos and cars and blank checks. And those were the hippies! Running around in their flowing clothes, their noses surgically tilted in the air!”
“And who are they angry at, really angry at?” Barry asks. “Not the Man — they wouldn’t know the Man if he froze their Bloomingdale’s charge cards. No, they’re angry at their parents! The people who fund all this in the first place. If they don’t want their parents, send them my way. I’ve been looking all my life for someone to wipe my ass and pay my bills.”
Robert could never offer such a clear-eyed excoriation of upwardly middle-class behavior; to escape the confines of a childhood in row house Philadelphia, he relied instead on accommodation, smarts and the blessing of extreme good looks to bed and wed his way into high society. His anger was reserved for his parents and all they stood for: the narrowness of his Jewish upbringing, the constant grasping for money and their paradoxical rejection of anything that smelled of financial success.
Or so he thought.
And that’s what is engaging about this book. At its heart, it’s a classic tale of the prodigal son, only it’s told from the perspective of a lower working-class Jewish family at a time in America when religion and class were a hindrance to success, but not an impossible obstacle.
This is not a gorgeously written work, but it flows along with such ease that you don’t notice, even through more than 500 pages. Pomerantz is a nimble storyteller, employing just enough twists and unexpected turns to maintain momentum through several decades of tumultuous history.
There’s an almost Forrest Gump quality to the narrative, as the headlines of the time period — Vietnam and the draft, campus protests, drugs, AIDS, sexual revolution, financial crises — make guest appearances, cameo actors with actual roles to play. The best of these characters are the cities themselves, Philadelphia (where Robert is raised), Boston (where he attends college) and, of course, the many sides of New York City.
Pomerantz adroitly captures Robert’s claustrophobic Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood, where families who were struggling to gain a toehold in the middle class lived close together in row houses of similar vintage and layout, with thin walls and tiny kitchens and endless anxieties over money. Robert’s mother, Stacia, “insisted that they reuse everything from tin foil to dental floss. For Robert’s fourteenth birthday he got a birthday card, signed by his parents, along with several pairs of socks and some underwear. After he’d read the card, it went back in the drawer, only to be taken out again for the following year’s birthday, and the one after that.”
It is against this obsession with money that Robert rebels, by connecting with ever-more wealthy women and entering a society in which his parents are a rank embarrassment and his upbringing pushed away as a difficult memory. But this is not a rags-to-riches story with a sugary ending. Even when Robert has propelled himself to the point where doormen and chauffeurs are as much a part of his life as fine suits and expensive watches, he feels a deep reluctance about his new station, a sense of sublimated discomfort. He doesn’t belong there, either.
Today, when American Jews enjoy unprecedented prosperity and status, when a high-ranking White House official can take a well-publicized break for his son’s bar mitzvah, when a young Jewish man can marry a president’s daughter under a huppah, the Vishniak family’s struggle may seem to belong to the distant past. But it doesn’t. The myth that all Jews are comfortable if not wealthy is just that — a myth. And even those who have achieved some economic and social status are often just a generation removed from men, like Robert’s father, who worked two poorly paying jobs to make ends meet.
Class has played a role in American Jewish history as powerful as the one played by religion and geography, and it’s a pleasure to read a novel that weaves this message into a winding, engaging narrative. By its very title, “Rich Boy” challenges us to think about the relationship between wealth and happiness in America. It’s not giving away the ending of this compelling story to say that knowing who you really are plays far more importance than Robert Vishniak thought at the beginning.
Jane Eisner is the editor of the Forward.