I’m not in the habit of shilling for friends, but please do yourself a favor and go read my buddy Matt Klam’s long-awaited (by those in the know) first novel, Who is Rich? Don’t get me wrong. I love to support my friends. But I also kind of hate it. Especially when they’re fellow writers, and especially when they’re tilling some of the same ground I do (as Gore Vidal put it, “every time a friend succeeds, something inside me dies.”) In fact, after reading Who is Rich, I told Matt that I might actually have to kill him. On the other hand, I can’t totally hold the book’s greatness against him because he spent a lot of years in the wilderness and this novel was a long time coming. Seventeen years to be exact.
It’s even longer ago that Matt and I met in Provincetown during the winter of 1993 when he was a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center and I was spending the winter there in my uncle’s house, trying to write my own first novel. Soon after arriving in town in the cold October chill, I met Susanna Sonnenberg, who was staying a few houses down, doing pretty much the same thing I was doing, trying to figure out her life and become a real writer (which for her, like me, didn’t happen that winter but did happen later). One evening the two of us made our way over to the Work Center for the welcoming party for the new fellows, who had just arrived for their eight-month residencies. As we entered the reception area and came upon a frankly odd and scruffy assortment of writers and artists, Susanna and I nodded at one another knowingly and said, “These are going to be our friends this winter.” We were right. Among the talented group were the late Lucy Grealy, Elizabeth McCracken, Paul Lisicky, and the man Susanna would later marry and divorce, Andrew Peterson.
Over the next few weeks and months, she and I assumed the role of honorary fellows, hanging out with our kindred spirits at the few bars and restaurants open during the offseason and having them over for dinners at our storied housesits (Susanna’s had once belonged to John Dos Passos, and mine belonged to my uncle, Norman Mailer). I don’t remember how exactly my friendship with Matt blossomed, but it’s possible we played tennis on the high school courts a couple of times before the weather got too cold, or maybe we just stayed up late drinking one night and discovered that we were a good audience for one another, appreciative of each other’s sense of humor (though he was definitely funnier). Matt was a large physical presence, tall and gangly with coat-hanger shoulders, shaggy blond curls, a big honker of a nose, slightly bugged-out eyes, and a wide and sometimes goofy grin. Though the youngest and least accomplished of the fellows at the Work Center, his status changed, practically overnight, when The New Yorker decided to buy his short story “Sam the Cat.” Giddy and full of himself but also self-deprecating and incredulous, Matt imagined a future in which writers like him would become stars on MTV, something he felt was inevitable and highly possible but also clearly ridiculous and improbable.
In the years that followed, the MTV dreams were never realized, but he did publish more stories in The New Yorker, and then a collection of them called Sam the Cat, which, when it came out, garnered a lot of attention and great reviews and prompted The New Yorker to name him to their annual list of the twenty best writers under the age of 40. By then he had married Lara, a beautiful, sharp-eyed psychotherapist, who had a bedside manner with him that was amused, cool, knowing and tolerant but with an edge. At their wedding, in Washington, D.C., only the best man fainted.
After their daughter, Pixie, was born, Matt did his share to support his family and the continuation of his literary output by teaching creative writing and doing pieces for GQ and other glossies. But several attempts at writing a novel were unsuccessful, and time just kept ticking by; the heady days of his early success were quickly receding in the rearview. Matt was still quintessentially Matt, but he felt himself drowning in the confines of domesticity and responsibility. His remedy was to look for transcendence outside his marriage. Unlike the Thomas Haden Church character in Sideways, who answers his questioning friend Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, by saying, “You don’t understand my plight,” Matt understood his plight all too well. It was that understanding, coupled with his scorching honesty about it, that became the engine of his belated but triumphant return, the fulfillment of his great early promise.
In Who is Rich?, Matt takes on the sinkhole of his missing years, the pain of his slow-motion flameout and what it turned him into, in what can only be called an act of heroic self-immolation. I get a little crazy when reading the customer reviews of the book on Amazon. A depressingly large number of readers see in the once-sort-of-famous cartoonist Rich Fischer, Matt’s narrator/stand-in, an entitled, whiny middled-aged white man who has no right to feel anything but privileged and fortunate (“Klam’s complaint festival” one calls it). Some of them accuse Matt of simply using the book to try and justify his having cheated on his wife (“A self-serving, self-centered man-boy”). A few even malign the writing itself (“sloppy, convoluted”). I suppose I can understand where reactions like these are coming from (I might call them “low-information readers”), the same way I can understand the anger and disappointment that led some people to vote for Donald Trump. But I can’t support the conclusions and am left with one thought only: They just don’t get it. Because it seems in this increasingly polarized world, people either do or they don’t. And if they don’t, nothing I say is gonna persuade them.
For everyone still with me, let me just say that what Matt has pulled off in his novel is like a magic trick inside of a magic trick. I can’t figure out how he does what he does. I can only tell you that he arranges words in unlikely combinations that read like nothing you’ve ever read before. I can tell you that his narrator is like the real-life Matt on steroids: hilarious, poignant, heartbreaking, sarcastic, knowing, naive, worldly, goofy, cutting, generous, and sometimes–make that often–all these things at once. I tried leafing through the book after I finished, to find examples of what I’m talking about, and there were literally too many to choose from. Pretty much the whole goddamn book. That’s my pull quote. The whole damn book. Every time I wanted to start underlining, I couldn’t see a place to stop. And looking up above where I’d started, I wanted to underline all that stuff too.
In fact, just opening the book randomly now, I find this passage in which Rich is describing the state of his married sex-life after the birth of his children:
“In a previous life, she bit my neck and licked my ear when we did it. After Kaya, I worried about courting her in my pajamas, with our little angel breathing down the hall, and lost focus and cringed as Robin’s patience ran out if I finished too fast or not fast enough and overstayed my welcome. Bad sex was better than nothing, but Beanie effectively ended the badness. Fuckless weeks, excused by parenting, turned weirdly okay. Like our anniversary, we weren’t sure anymore when it was supposed to happen. And, 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.”
But Rich’s comic takedown of married sex is only part of his discontent. He is a man caught up in a maelstrom of conflicting desires, which become for him a kind of Venus fly trap of love, money, and success counterbalanced by what one must sacrifice to acquire them–freedom, loyalty, self-respect, time with one’s children–in short, the modern condition, in which so much is promised and so little is attainable without the sacrifice of one’s humanity.
The main action of the book takes place during a week-long workshop at an annual summer artist’s retreat where Rich has taught for years (though he now fears that even this small fruit of his early success is in jeopardy due to the appearance on the scene of a younger, more successful, less white, version of himself). Adding to his agita is a long-anticipated reunion with Amy, the woman he met at the retreat and began an affair with the previous summer. A year-long torrent of texts and emails has got them both hot and bothered and wondering where things will lead. For Rich, Amy fills the void of love and passion that his marriage no longer seems to provide, and he both desires her and feels repulsed by her, by the need she stirs in him, and by her married-to-a-billionaire other life. Here Rich’s quandary, his ambivalence about Amy and about money, is made manifest: “They lived in a monstrous stone-and-shingle masterpiece and also owned a $20 million duplex overlooking Central Park, and a ‘crappy’ place in London, and a ‘nice’ place in Chamonix. She employed a French-speaking Moroccan chef name Yasmine. I hated her life but thought I should have it.”
The reason I call what Matt has done a magic act is because, while he has a story to tell, the story does not drive the book. Language does, the abundance of acutely observed details, the descriptions of people and places. And, most important, the narrator’s ability (see below) to riff like Coltrane about what he is going through, to describe the texture of his life, to let us in on his struggle:
“We’d put a lot into our emails. It was a gigantic pain in the ass. If either of us slacked off, the other one got offended. You had be timely and consistently thoughtful. Although it was nice knowing that on nights when I couldn’t sleep, at least someone out there was listening. When I started spiraling into my own black hole, or when Beanie went loco at two a.m., or when Kaya cried because her pillow was too hot, or when the magazine sent back my drawing thirty-seven times for revisions and then killed it, or when I received actual death threats for a cartoon I drew mocking military methods of interrogation, or when the dental surgeon sent me a bill for two thousand nine hundred fucking dollars, or the neighbors hated me because my car blew clouds of whitish-blackish smoke, or when Robin said I tasted like something she had for dinner that she didn’t feel like tasting again, when I thought nobody would ever want me again, that I’d never crawl into bed with someone and fall into her arms, grateful, protected, in love–I could say it, through that doohickey in my pocket, and by the power of instantaneous electronic transmission it would find her, rising out of a dead sleep in the middle of the night, and she’d zap back a little something to cheer me up, and that would be enough.”
So like I said, I may hate my old friend a little for being able to write like a virtuoso and slay me with what he knows not just about his life but about my life, everyone’s life, about marriage and money and work and kids and all the important things that we think we know but don’t really understand until someone like Matt points out something about us we felt but hadn’t recognized–e.g. “the increasing awkwardness of disrobing in front of my wife”–and we go, “Holy shit!” So yes, fuck that guy, but also I love him and admire him. I love him for the way he digs down deep into the uncomfortable innards of his ugliest urges, his most primal needs, and finds the truth there and makes the truth funny and hot to the touch and dangerous and necessary. And I love him because he then has the balls to put it out there for any friend or stranger to see. And I love him because even if I were a stranger, I’d want to be his friend.