I don’t suppose it was inevitable that Matthew Klam’s debut novel would be about early promise unfulfilled. That it would be concerned with a career that has conspicuously failed to achieve its potential. That it would have something to say about the trauma of a return to obscurity after a period of glorious success.
I don’t suppose, either, that Klam’s book had to be about a once popular and celebrated author of semiautobiographical stories — stories that mined his sexual indiscretions for dark laughs, his relationships for harsh truths about the modern condition — years later searching the wreckage of his life for the material that might make up a new work: a male confessional about the professional, financial, marital, parental and erotic degradations of a has-been literary star.
I don’t suppose Who is Rich? had to be that kind of book, at all. It could have been a sweeping historical romance set against the backdrop of war. Or a dystopian sci-fi, or a crime thriller, or a fantasy epic for kids. But it makes sense that instead of any of those things, it is a riotous sex comedy narrated by a basically well-meaning, or at least not entirely monstrous, but nevertheless horribly compromised and destructive American white guy. A solipsistic, depressed, adulterous, drunk, 42-year-old, heterosexual father of two, who also happens to be a blocked writer. His name is Rich Fischer, and he is the hero and narrator of Who is Rich? (And that awkward title might be the only false note in the book.)
Eighteen years ago, Matthew Klam published his first and, until recently, only book. Sam the Cat and Other Stories was a collection of comic-satirical dispatches from the frontline of the disordered suburban male psyche. The stories in it had originally appeared, over the previous seven years, in The New Yorker magazine, each one greeted with resounding applause. They established their author, born in 1964, as a new star in American fiction, almost a sensation. Lorrie Moore, the doyenne of The New Yorker short story writers, has written that Klam’s fiction “set the pages of the magazine on fire.”
“You walk into a supermarket or a restaurant, your girlfriend goes in first and you’re looking at her ass. And you say to yourself, ‘Isn’t that the most beautiful ass? That’s mine. It’s beautiful.’ Like it’s going to save you. An ass isn’t going to save you. What’s it going to do? Hide you from the police?”
That’s from “Sam the Cat”, the title story of the collection, the one that sets the tone. It is about a young man who surprises himself by falling hopelessly in lust with another man he sees in a bar.
“I went home and shut my eyes and tried to sleep, except there was this guy, the guy who looked like a chick, walking around the party in my mind. I watched him walk up to the bartender, I saw him reach into his front pocket to get money, and I saw how his round butt stuck out a little — somebody stop me.”
Klam’s fiction gives voice to the male id, in the male idiom. His stories are written with clarity and economy, and great skill. Plus jokes. If you are a man — or if you know a man — you will instantly recognise the sweaty aroma of honesty that rises from his pages, the pungent tang of truth that gives his work its bite. They haven’t dated a bit, the stories in Sam the Cat, because men are still selfish and horny and hopeful and frustrated (and drunk) and we are still, mostly, well-meaning and self-defeating. We make terrible decisions.
Deservedly, Sam the Cat brought Klam awards and recognition. He was mentioned in the same sentences (like this one) as David Foster Wallace and George Saunders and Jonathan Franzen. His book was optioned for a movie by Cameron Crowe. He published more stories, to still more acclaim, and signed a lucrative book deal for a follow-up collection. And then… nothing. Klam went quiet.
He felt, he has said since, that he had no more stories in him to write. Also that the voice of Sam the Cat — and that book was nothing if not a voice, his voice — had failed to develop. He sounded the same in his thirties and his forties as he had in his twenties. This seemed to him a failing.
“If I were a girl I’d fuck 10 guys a day,” says Sam. “I swear. I’d never want to be a girl, though, for they have the worst deal in history.”
That was published in 1993. We are in a moment now when the complicated extracurricular sexual entanglements, the career failures, the financial woes, and any other tribulations of privileged white heterosexual men (hair loss? dodgy knees?) are not necessarily the stuff of prize-winning literary fiction. They’re not even the stuff of polite conversation.
In 2018, the lifestyle hassles of spoilt white dudes are subordinate to the problems of everyone else. In 2018, we are woke. So a novel about a priapic Caucasian adulterer, one that offers empathy rather than scorn, might be seen to be somewhat out of step. If it is to succeed, especially with the bien-pensants — the likeliest readers of literary novels — it’d better be good. This one is.
We meet Rich Fischer in the summer of 2012, at a summer arts conference at a seaside college town in New England, where he is teaching cartooning to mature students. Rich was once among the most fêted comic book writers of his generation, but he “peaked too early and failed to live up to his potential.” Now he is an illustrator for a magazine — “august, old-fangled” — that sounds a bit like The New Yorker. Which wouldn’t be so bad, perhaps, except that “illustration is to cartooning as prison sodomy is to pansexual orgy.”
Rich is depressed, even suicidal. His marriage, to the beautiful Robin, mother of his two young children, is in the kind of slump from which it seems a marriage might never recover. The sex is barely even cursory. “With the exception of my tongue on her clitoris every who knows when, she didn’t need to be touched. She had vibrators for that. I think she mostly thought of what I did as a way to save batteries.”
Rich’s monologue is like that. Disconsolate ruminations on the boredom and frustrations of quotidian, middle-class existence, redeemed by zingers. Redeemed, too, by Rich’s essential OK-ness, his bumbling humanity. He really loves his kids, except when they are preventing him fulfilling his potential. He really appreciates Robin, except when he really resents her. His attitude: sorry not sorry. At one point he watches as nubile young women with full breasts fool around in the sunshine, reflecting: “Four more days. Then I could go home and choke my wife.”
Family, monogamy, parenthood, domesticity: all are examined, all are rejected, all are embraced. Rich wants out, but he could never imagine leaving. Unless he could start a new life, perhaps, with Amy, with whom he is having a secret romance. The tall, unhappy wife of an abusive billionaire, Amy is 41 years old, with three kids, one of whom is seriously ill. She is a philanthropist, an activist, a do-gooder. “She believed in prayer and public service, a certain godliness, and, even so, couldn’t stop herself from texting me photos of her naked butt.”
Rich thinks he loves Amy. Then again, maybe he doesn’t. “I wasn’t even sure if I liked her, although maybe I liked her. But did I like her because I was lonely and she was hot and rich? Or was it because I didn’t get any sleep and had brain damage from speaking baby language? Or because Robin’s booty had snapped back into shape but touching it was still a no-no?”
The book has some wonderful comic set-pieces. A softball match turns ugly. There is a memorable sexual encounter, conducted on heavy opioids, in the bed of a woman with a badly broken arm, to the soundtrack of “Gangnam Style”: “She hugged and kissed me. I didn’t know whose drool was whose. She tried swallowing my face. I fought back as best I could.”
Shortly afterward, Rich remembers that his wife, back home with the kids, “was alone and sleep-deprived and doing the best she could.” Charitably, he continues, “I forgave her.” A paragraph later, he charitably forgives himself, too. “Sex deprivation had made me desperate, half-blind and irrationally prone to fantasy, impulse, isolation and cruelty… I lived in a sticky web of communal adaptations, minimisations, moderations. It made me cuckoo.”
“All the jealousy and heartache and secret negotiations,” he sighs at one point, considering his affair with Amy, “all for a hidden spooge in the dark.”
“Contemporary daddy under stress” is how Rich characterises the genre of comic he imagines writing, to get himself out of the mess he’s in. Is that the genre that Who is Rich? fits into? Is it just a self-pitying trawl through the usual middle-aged miseries, albeit a very funny one? An apologia for all the shambolic deadbeat dads?
I think it’s more than that. It’s a pointed portrait of the delusions of the point one per cent. (Amy is friends with Dick Cheney.) It’s a satire of adult education. It’s a portrait of the triumphs and disasters of modern fatherhood, and the pram in the hall. It’s a How We Live Now novel, one of the best to come along in a while.
In a profile in New York magazine last summer, Klam explained that, contrary to legend, he hadn’t actually disappeared in the Noughties, after the publication of Sam the Cat. He’d known where he was the whole time. He’d been living with his wife, bringing up their daughter, teaching, and trying to write. He’d begun and abandoned something, and then something else. He’d started work on the book at hand, and worried it was no good. Then he’d been told it was no good. Then he began to believe it was maybe good.
There’s another cartoonist in Who is Rich? A younger model, Angel Solito, who is riding a wave of fame and success. Solito’s bestselling graphic novel is a semiautobiographical account of the appalling depredations of his childhood as a refugee to the States from Latin America. It is a harrowing narrative of violence, squalor and loss. Solito’s story is important, and valid, and it’s right that he should tell it. But, as Rich reflects, “until the day people stopped wishing they could cram their spouse into a dumpster, my story was relevant, too.”
After his final coupling with Amy, he is determined to make something of his infidelity. “I’d done it, I’d popped a stranger. It was time to get to work, to use my debasing experiences for the purposes of artistic advancement, in a half-true story imbued with the mysterious behaviour of actual humans, their bad decisions and perverse yearning that somehow delight us.”
Yep, that pretty much nails it. What a trip Klam’s novel is. What a blast. What a hoot!
‘Who Is Rich’ is available now