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Rich Boy

Sharon Pomerantz makes an auspicious debut with a novel about climbing the American caste system.

Sharon Pomerantz's debut novel, Rich Boy, feels old-fashioned in ways both bad and good.

Bad: Rich Boy was "10 years in the making," publisher Jonathan Karp crows in his letter to reviewers. If only one of those years had been devoted to editing out some of the underbrush!

Good: Rich Boy is an impressive, engrossing, sprawling picaresque — the sort of novel about a protagonist’s self-discovery that readers have not seen since the cryptic "postmodern" style became the trendy way to capture a generation's preoccupations.

Book Review: Rich Boy

Courtesy of Hachette Book Group

Pomerantz's dialogue, in particular, beautifully serves the range of her main character’s conversations. On his social-climbing journey from a cramped Philadelphia row house in the 1960s to a spacious Manhattan condo three decades later, Robert Vishniak — the "rich boy" of the title (though he is anything but when we first meet him) — learns to interact with the full socioeconomic spectrum of people. Whether he's talking to his stoically frugal mother (Stacia), his blueblood college roommate (Sanford Trace, aka Tracey), or his law-firm boss and father-in-law (Jack Alexander), Vishniak's colloquial speech is gracefully rendered. Soon after he arrives at college, for example, Vishniak is invited out by Trace and his prep-school friends, including a cartoonishly preppy classmate named Mark Pascal:

…[Vishniak] was grateful for Pascal's attention. The others made no effort whatsoever. Why had Tracey even invited him?

"Your parents have something in mind for you?" Pascal asked.

"No expectations, really," Robert said. "Except that I graduate. And don't go to war." Tracey turned abruptly and faced him. "A bunch of pacifists in your family, Vishniak?"

"No," Robert said. "Cowards."

Everyone laughed. He had made them laugh by selling his family down the river. There was something satisfying in their approval that also made him feel a little sick.

Vishniak is the prototypical child of a working-class family. He chafes at the confines of his small home and its environs, which constantly overflow with (to him) small-minded relations. Yet from an early age, Vishniak and his parents sense he's destined for a loftier existence. For starters, there's his capacious brain; he hardly has to lift a finger to maintain straight A's in high school. Nor can his family and friends ignore his remarkable good looks: "[H]e looks just like Monty Clift," a rich cousin remarks about the 13-year-old boy, while at school "he'd heard his English teacher, Mrs. Markowitz, tell his history teacher, Miss Taft, that one day Robert Vishniak would be a lady-killer, a term that rang in his ears like a threat."

Eventually Vishniak makes it into Tufts University, one of the "other schools" near Harvard's Cambridge, Massachusetts. It won't be the last time our hero settles for second-best — even in Manhattan, where he relocates during the early 1970s in the wake of a romantic disaster, a crisis that fosters Vishniak's lifelong tendency to settle for the tangible over the ideal.

Midway through retracing young Vishniak's path to power as he achieves his career ambition of becoming a real-estate lawyer in New York City, Pomerantz abruptly includes a lengthy section about Gotham's urban makeover in the 1970s. It’s a passage of energy and authority — but what's it doing here? A thoughtful editor’s excision of this and other similar passages would have tightened Rich Boy without sacrificing any of its merits.

And substantial those merits are. Along with the aforementioned fine dialogue, there's the perennial appeal of  "poor boy makes good." During his fledgling year as an associate in a white-shoe law firm, for instance, Vishniak meets and woos Crea Alexander, winning a place in her upscale universe. He soon learns that her orbit includes none other than his louche but loyal former roommate, Trace, who has since married Claudia Cates — herself once the target of a clumsy pass Vishniak made during a Smith College party.

Pomerantz's point seems to be that Vishniak's glittering new world is every bit as insular as the one he left behind. In "the Northeast" — the Philly term for his precinct of provenance — "miles and miles of Jews [had been] packed into long, solid-brick rows… each with a cement patio big enough for exactly two folding chairs." In Tuxedo Park, the chic enclave of Upper East Side types to which Vishniak ultimately accedes, no one ever has to see anyone whom they’d prefer remain invisible.

Money can buy social barriers, Vishniak discovers — before he perceives with mounting dread that the portals of a gated community swing two ways: They bar auslanders but quarantine insiders. The people Robert truly wants to stay connected to — among them his bond-trading, drug-dealing brother, Barry, and his theater-habitué friend, Sally Johannson — all have rich pasts, and their kind aren’t welcome in Tuxedo Park.

Rich Boy isn't perfect. But connoisseurs of coming-of-age tales will find it a meaty, juicy read.

Bethanne Patrick is a freelance book critic and blogger.