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Simon Rich
Elliot Allgash
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

Random House Trade Paperbacks
US Trade Paperback Reprint
ISBN 978-0-812-98039-4
Publication Date: 06-14-2011
240 pages; $15
Date Reviewed: 08-07-2011

Index:  General Fiction

In fiction wishes tend to be granted only when their effects will be unfortunate for those who make them. The upshot of this trope is to exaggerate the worst aspects of the character who seems to have the genie in his command. When the genie is a supernatural being, the supposedly fortunate finder rarely twigs to the fact that it is the genie running the show.

When the genie is human being, however, it's clear from the get-go who is in charge. The trick for the writer of such tales is to have it both ways; to make the genie both a villain with unlimited powers and a flawed, frail human being. Simon Rich unbottles his genie in the form of an ultra-rich, ultra-spoiled student, who lends his name to the title of Rich's first novel 'Elliot Allagash.'

The lynchpin of this novel is the naïve narrative voice of Seymour Herstein; he's the middle-class nerd at the bottom of the heap who tells the story. The prose is so breezily transparent that many readers will finish this book in day. It's so skillfully written that you can re-read it another day and find more than you as a reader could possibly wish for.

Rich never wastes a word, and puts us right into the thick of the story. Seymour is the ultimate loser at his private high school. Elliot Allagash is the ultimate villain with so much money he can accomplish feats that are nearly supernatural. Elliot targets Seymour immediately. First he pushes him around. Then he decides to apply his money and his mind to making Seymour the king of this very small hill. He certainly has the power to do so. But what will be left of Seymour after Elliot is done with him?

Reading this novel is always a pleasure because Seymour has such a charming and engaging voice that he can make it a hoot to hang out with even an evil monster like Elliot. Rich writes with a decisively minimalist feel, though this is not formal minimalism. Seymour is no angel, but he's a pretty sweet-natured kid. He's a little bit oblivious to the extent of Elliot's evil, but he also sees lots of things that Elliot does not see. He's as reliable a narrator as a pre-teen boy can be, but there are clearly limits as to what he can understand. He knows some of his limits, but not all of them. Rich manages to make all of this clear to the reader, in a well-executed exercise of achieving complexity via layered simplicity.

While Elliot and Seymour are the main players, they are by no means the only characters. Seymour's parents are very middle-class, and pretty ordinary, but charming in their economic insecurity. They're balanced by Terry Allagash, Elliot's over-the-top father, who is a terrifying and pathetic creation. He's perfectly happy to act as a patron of the arts, with the proviso that he will be the only one to see the work produced — and sometimes, on a whim, destroy them. Simon mines this material for lots of great humor, and uses this to make these larger-than-life figures human.

Though the through-line of the plot is perfectly apparent, the way there is entertainingly episodic. Rich takes a page from crime fiction and crafts some incredibly clever and complicated cons, all of them facilitated by Elliot's invincible wealth. Each of these brings the characters and the readers closer to the brink. He continually ups the ante. But the emotional arc of the story is what keeps us engaged while the episodes keep us entertained.

'Elliot Allagash' is an almost alarmingly easy novel to read. But the ease with which it reads belies a very complicated and crafty construction. The naïveté of the narrator effectively conceals the sophistication of the author. Rich is a master of letting the reader in on secrets that none of the characters can quite see. The end result is a novel that is so much fun, and so funny, as to make one forget the very real emotions that empower the humor. Here is a rare exception to the Twilight Zone Rule of Wishes; readers who yearn for a good novel can find that wish granted in 'Elliot Allagash,' with no backlash beyond inappropriate laughter and the desire to read it again.

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