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June 20, 2010

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Fun glimpse of being a teenager

IF I were in the eighth grade, I'm pretty sure I'd love Simon Rich's first novel, "Elliot Allagash." I might even press it on my friends. ("It's about this 13-year-old evil genius who does whatever he wants because he's, like, a billionaire. And it's funny. And short.") But since more than 45 years have passed since I took up space in a middle school, I simply like it, very much - while wishing this flippant little parable about the puerility of greed had a deeper, sharper bite. Rich is a writer for "Saturday Night Live," and his fondness for sketch comedy is evident on almost every page.

The narrator, Seymour Herson, is an adolescent isolate at Glendale Academy, a second-tier private school in Manhattan. Nicknamed "Chunk-Style," he can't run, can't swim, can't dribble a basketball. He's a clumsy, self-conscious video gamer whose parents - his father is an assistant professor of economics at Fordham, his mother a speech therapist - spend a large percentage of their income on his tuition while "secretly terrified" their investment is money wasted.

With the arrival of Elliot Allagash at Glendale, Seymour acquires both a friend and a tempter. Previously expelled from a dozen better schools and able to quote Iago's soliloquies verbatim, Elliot is a scion of America's largest fortune. We've met his kind before (eats watercress sandwiches, quaffs martinis, berates the servants), and while Rich makes Elliot comic in his sheer awfulness, he never connects Elliot's monstrous feelings of entitlement to our current money-trumps-everything cultural moment.

Elliot Allagash remains a junior robber baron, like some dissolute visitor from the late 19th century, a Kid Rockefeller rather than, say, L'il Enron - too bad! As in "Cinderella" or "Pygmalion," Elliot is determined to transform Seymour into the most popular boy at school. "Remember," he says, "I'm not doing this out of kindness or generosity. I'm doing this purely for sport. It's an intellectual exercise - a way to occupy my days during this hellish period of my life." With scarcely a pang of conscience (it's hard to tell whether Rich, who is a son of the New York Times Op-Ed columnist Frank Rich, means this to be satire or just assumed behavior) Seymour abets his mentor in boosting exams, ruining reputations, rigging a student election. Corruption complete, he basks in his preposterous new celebrity.

The story jumps ahead four years. Thanks to unearned high grades, a padded resume and an unctuous ghost written application essay, Seymour is admitted to Harvard. Dishonesty rocks!

It makes for an enjoyable little dose of poisonous cynicism. But then Rich flinches, minimizing consequences.

It's as if Rich grew so beguiled by his own characters he couldn't stand to punish them. Or maybe he was thinking of his potential younger readers. Considering what eighth and ninth graders have seen of the world in their short lifetimes, possibly the author felt they might reject it as unrealistic.


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