Who Is Rich? has a deeply authentic misery at its core. Matthew Klam’s first novel tells the story of Rich Fischer, a graphic novelist whose best days are in his past, his books out of print, and the only remnant of past glories is an annual invitation to teach autobiographical cartooning at the Matticook College Summer Arts Conference. His marriage is unsatisfying, passion buried under parenting. The glimmering bits of excitement come from a more off-again-than-on affair with Amy, a woman he met at the conference a year ago, an affair of texts, e-mails, and guilt.

The entire story happens during this short five-day conference. The affair stutters off and on and off again while the on is filled with sublime sex and the off with guilt and dislike. Amy is the wife of a billionaire. She gives away millions of dollars to charities to deflect from the guilt of their parasitic source of wealth and the hatred and alienation she feels in her marriage. Rich loves, desires, and hates her in equal measure.

His wife Robin is a television producer whose gone from traveling to dangerous places around the world to exploitive and soporific true crime series. Rich has gone from graphic novelist success to writer’s block and magazine illustration. Their saving grace is their children whom they love and struggle to parent.

This is not a novel full of action. It’s one man’s running commentary on life, politics, the economy, love, marriage, parenthood, and the stultifying boredom of being an adult. Rich is not particularly nice, he is cheating on his wife after all. But he is funny, wry, and a wicked observer of life’s absurdities. He is not a bad man, he wants to be kind and supportive and his children melt his heart into a puddle.

Frankly, the story itself is not that interesting. Sad and disillusioned middle-aged man dithering about feeling sorry for themselves are a dime a dozen. What makes Who Is Rich? special is the prose, the brilliant arrangements of words, the way modern American absurdity is captured so vividly and succinctly. I found myself frequently marking whole paragraphs to recall later. The illustrations by John Cuneo also were a fabulous addition.

To give a brief example, Rich wanders about the house waiting for his son who woke in the night to start crying again after being soothed and fed, waiting and wandering until he “split the worry into so many pieces it started to glitter.” He wonders whether he still has stories to tell, though also thinks that he will be relevant as long as people “want to cram their spouses into a dumpster.”

The title asks us Who Is Rich? but it’s asking two questions, really. Who is Rich Fischer? and who is rich in the things that matter. Amy has billions, but she is miserable. It’s a title, so the words are capitalized, but maybe the question is not “Who is Rich?” but “Who is rich?” It’s hard to tell, particular when Rich is telling the story…is he honest about his life? Who can tell, after all, as he tells us there is no such thing as a reliable narrator.

Who Is Rich? will be released July 4th. i received an advanced e-galley from the publisher through NetGalley.

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