Books

book review

Once-promising graphic novelist’s midlife affair comically collides with hard truths of life and art

michael hirshon for the boston globe

Matthew Klam’s long-awaited second book, “Who Is Rich?,” is one of those novels with the rare power to mesmerize. It’s a dazzling meditation on monogamy, parenthood, mortality, shame, erotic liberation, and artistic struggle, a tale told by an adulterous middle-aged schlub, full of sound and fury, and signifying, well, pretty much everything.

The schlub in question is Rich Fischer, a once promising graphic novelist now consigned to life as a magazine illustrator, in retreat from a stifling home life (two little kids, one exhausted wife), and hellbent on kick-starting his mojo through outlandish behavior. In essence, he goes on a spiritual bender, the central feature of which is a tempestuous affair he conducts while teaching at a summer arts conference held at a “fishing village turned tourist trap’’ on the New England coast.

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The object of his infidelity, Amy O’Donnell, is a painting student at the gathering, an equally troubled mother of three whose hubby is an abusive Wall Street titan with a net worth that exceeds Rich’s by eight to ten zeroes.

The plot is rudimentary and almost beside the point: Rich and Amy flirt, surrender to lust, retreat, reconnect, and bid farewell. The novel’s genius resides in the manic, self-lacerating voice of the narrator, one that will be familiar to fans of Klam’s celebrated debut collection, “Sam the Cat,” which mined the masculine angst of modern courtship.

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Klam’s novel amounts to a reckoning for men who have nestled into the comforts of domesticity only to discover themselves in a hostage situation.

“Sex deprivation had made me desperate, half-blind, and irrationally prone to fantasy, impulse, isolation, and cruelty,” Klam writes. “The parenting and home ownership, the borrowing, the debt, the load-bearing walls, packed inside that steady, anxious flow of days, nurturing, soldiering, corralling, building a monument to a lifestyle, to be preserved, resold, passed down, passed on. I lived in a sticky web of communal adaptations, minimizations, moderations. It made me cuckoo.”

Klam’s novel is full of passages like this — dense, associative, lyric, and compulsively honest. They will, I suspect, also drive some readers cuckoo. But Rich is after something more than the erotic charge of a new body. Like many adulterers, he yearns for the transcendence of an intimacy sacrificed to marital routine.

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“What was the point of having a body?” he demands. “Intellectual life was not so satisfying that we could afford to relinquish the physical . . . maybe it’s just the raw power of sex, to cleanse and heal the body and mind, to simplify, soften, maybe clarify a complicated heavy relationship, to make strong what is often rough or broken . . . while gently nourishing the other, while somehow loosening oneself from the hunger — hey, around here we didn’t get enough of that. But just to hold the other and be held in return until the boundaries melt and our bodies hover, float, become weightless in that zero time of unclocked moments — we didn’t do a lot of that, either.”

Klam is writing in the tradition of Updike, Bellow, and Roth, unspooling an unabashedly masculine account of midlife crisis. But his female characters are never reduced to caricature. He sees in them a distinct but nuanced struggle for selfhood, his wife, Robin, haunted by the death of her brother, while Amy contends with a mate who brutalizes her.

The affair, though torrid for brief stretches, provides no refuge from the perils of self-reflection. Rich resents Amy’s wealth — “Her marriage was endowed. Their winnings were secured offshore” — which casts his own diminishing earning power into relief. He does, however, also consider how he might benefit from her largesse.

Rich’s creative decline — his sole book (titled “I Have Suffered Greatly’’) now long out of print — has triggered “psychic grief, low output, self-mockery, obscurity, isolation, depression, all the deprivations of artistic sacrifice, without making any art. Marriage and parenthood provided a kind of second life, a new beginning, for some failed artists. Certain men thrived in it. If these past years had been any indication, I never would.”

Rich flirts with fantasies of divorce, confession, even suicide. But Klam resists the urge to offer his hero some false sense of resolution. He is left (like the rest of us) to shoulder the burden of his betrayal.

“I was a part of something beyond my understanding,” he says, of the family he’s forsaken, “whole evenings spent in a daffy haze of singing, clapping, lifting, swinging, blowing up tiny balloons, my face turning purple, touching and examining every inch of them, like a violinist inspecting his instrument, kissing their sticky, doughnut-smelling feet.”

Many likely will dismiss Rich as unlikeable, that bland and self-defeating adjective employed to suggest that we ought turn to literature to find role models, heroes, or worse yet, friends. That is their right.

Klam has brought to life an indelible character, a man painfully alive on the page, cowardly in actions but utterly fearless in confronting hard truths we spend most of our lives evading.

WHO IS RICH?

By Matthew Klam

Random House, 336 pp., $27

Steve Almond is the author of several books, including “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life: A Book by and for the Fanatics Among Us.’’
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