Poor Seymour Herson, protagonist of Simon Rich’s début novel, Elliot Allagash. Overweight, unpopular, and often bullied, he becomes yet another target when Elliot Allagash shows up as a new student in his school. Not that Elliot bullies Seymour. Instead, Elliot targets Seymour as part of a weird Pygmalionesque experiment to manipulate the social hierarchies of Glendale, the middling Manhattan private school the two attend. Why is billionaire Elliot attending such a low-rent school? Simple: He’s been kicked out of every other school in New York at one point, and Glendale needs his father’s largesse. Elliot, bored evil genius that he is, spies Seymour sitting all alone and quickly singles him out as his chief puppet in a Machiavellian scheme, one that soon pays off for Seymour as well. Under Elliot’s supervision (or manipulation), Seymour sheds his weight, becomes a figurative and literal baller, and soon earns (or, uh finagles) the respect of his peers and teachers. In time though, Elliot’s creation craves autonomy–and turns on him.
Although Elliot repeatedly insists that his work with Seymour is a mere experiment to occupy his interest during his tenure in the hell that is Glendale, it becomes clear that he genuinely craves Seymour’s friendship, and, at times, he even admires aspects of his puppet. “You’re lucky you can still experience pleasure,” he tells Seymour early in their relationship, “I’ve become accustomed to a level of decadence so extreme that to go without luxury for even a minute fills me with a powerful rage.” The line is a great example of Rich at his best in Elliot Allagash–cartoonish comedy that tips into pathos. The roots of Elliot’s decadence are revealed a few pages later when we meet his awful, awful father Terry, a billionaire monster of the Mongomery Burns school. In a scene both funny and painful, Terry explains to an artistic genius that, not only will no one besides Terry ever see the paintings he’s commissioned from the artist, but that those paintings, along with the rest of his “Personal Museum” will be destroyed when he dies. The artist cries and pleads to renege the Faustian bargain he’s struck with his patron; Terry counters with a chilling (and hilarious) story about making a Pulitzer Prize-winning author write a “profoundly beautiful novel . . . in longhand” in front of him. “I read his book in a single sitting and then burned it in my fireplace,” he tells the shocked artist. Talk about decadence. While the scene is both funny and dreadful, the relationship between Terry and his son is downright sad. He attaches a note to a gift that he gives to Seymour when he and Elliot visit Seymour and his parents (they all play Monopoly in a scene of awkward comedy). The note says: “Dear Seymour, Thank you for spending so much time with my strange, strange boy. What is it like? You must remind me to ask you sometime.”
Terry’s note about his son is just one of many instances in this novel that speaks to the alienation that many adolescents feel. These themes match nicely with Rich’s tight, descriptive writing, which moves quickly, propelled by snappy dialogue (and plenty of punchlines, both verbal and visual). I don’t think that Elliot Allagash is being promoted directly as a Young Adult novel, but it will have a ready audience in the same smart crowd who dig funny, bright novels like C.D. Payne’s Youth in Revolt and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Recommended.
Elliot Allagash is available today in hardback from Random House.