Sharon Pomerantz’s first novel, Rich Boy , is the story of Robert Vishniak-a smart striver from a working-class Jewish neighborhood in Philadelphia who goes off to college to escape his parents’ anxious existence. As he moves through life, he finds himself among the sons of wasp wealth and pursued by its daughters, but he can never quite shake the feeling that it could all crumble in a moment.
Sound familiar? Set this thing in Newark, and you’ve got, more or less, the tale Philip Roth has been retelling for almost fifty years. Thus Pomerantz raises a tantalizing question: How does a woman write that story?
For much of Rich Boy , Pomerantz doesn’t seem interested in that challenge. If an epigraph from The Diamond As Big As the Ritz is any indication, Pomerantz sees her story as more in the Fitzgerald than Roth tradition. And at first, Robert Vishniak does seem afflicted by Jay Gatz/Gatsby’s delusion that money can buy self-transformation and happiness. But Robert is too much of a cynic to buy into that myth completely, and too prone to self-preservation to cut a truly tragic figure. He’s also too good looking. Unlike Gatsby, he gets the golden girl easily, more than once, and twice before he has any money at all. Robert pursues wealth not to win over an unrequiting lover but because it promises deliverance from the financial and thus existential angst he witnessed early in life in his overworked postal employee father and manically frugal mother. The impossible dream suspended in Rich Boy is not really escaping one’s identity; it’s finding a way to stop worrying.
All of which sounds very, well, Rothian. I’m thinking of Roth’s 2008 Indignation , about a butcher’s obedient son who makes his way to a waspy liberal arts college and the fateful choices he makes there, but also Goodbye, Columbus , Zuckerman, Unbound , and American Pastoral . So what does happen when a woman writes Roth’s story, however unintentionally? For one thing, the male protagonist is capable of empathy for women without feeling himself descend into impotence. Robert reflects, not necessarily accurately but compassionately, “maybe…all attractive young women had to be actresses, to survive the probing eyes of the world, and the curiosity and aggression of men.” He worries that the women who pursue him in the Pill’s first decade are still “giving in for him and not for themselves. This had not stopped him from enjoying himself, hardly, but afterward he felt the slight twinge, the ego, the man’s peculiarly secret insecurity-had he done right by her? How to respond when a woman says yes as if for something larger than herself-a cause, a birth control pill, … or the urging of a man’s insistent desire?” He is thrilled to find in the woman he loves “the wonderful selfishness of her desire existing next to his” and to discover himself “startled by the emotion of the whole experience.” It’s safe to say that these thoughts would never occur to Roth’s typical antihero.
Some readers making their way through Pomerantz’s novel will see it as a missed opportunity. When, they might ask, will an intelligent Jewish female writer like Pomerantz step up to the plate and write a whole novel from the perspective of a middle-class, mostly secular Jewish woman, covering her sexual awakening, ambition, and how she copes with assimilation, art, class conflict, and inter-generational discord? When will someone write a novel admitting that the young Jewish women who came of age in the second half of the twentieth century also grappled with all of these things? When will we get our female anti-Zuckerman?
And then, two-thirds of the way through Rich Boy , we catch a glimpse of her, in the form of Sally Johannson, a twenty-four-year old from the working-class neighborhood in Philly where Robert grew up. She shines corporate shoes to support her acting career, informs Robert almost immediately, “I am not for sale,” and says of her upbringing, “I know where I belong and who I belong to.” Which is not to say that she’s innocent or uncomplicated. She dabbles in self reinvention herself-her real name is Jacobson-laments that her career is probably going nowhere, and when Robert pours out his heart to her, tells him, gently but perceptively, “I don’t have therapy sex with anyone.” Sally Johannson has Robert’s number. ” ‘You want me to be with you and love you, so that you can feel good about yourself-” she yells at him, “so that you can touch a kind of passion for life that you know I have and that you probably left behind.”
Pomerantz is under no obligation to respond to Roth, and perhaps it’s unfair to expect her to. Compared to Roth’s work, the un-self-consciousness of Pomerantz’s novel is refreshing. There are no literary gimmicks or formal shenanigans; the prose never announces, “Writer at work.” And that’s not to say that the book lacks for ambition. Pomerantz reportedly worked on this novel for ten years, and it shows-compelling characters people a book rich with details about the eras they live through-the outrage and draft panic of the late sixties, the architectural transformation of downtown New York City in the seventies, the excess and AIDS-driven sexual panic of the eighties.
Maybe we should applaud Pomerantz for refusing to take upon herself the anxiety of influence that often makes Roth’s work, for all its brilliance, a real drag. Maybe the correct post-feminist response is to move forward, to tell a different story unencumbered by gender; masculinity weighed heavily on the work of Roth and Updike and Mailer and the last century’s other literary lions. But even post-feminism abhors a vacuum. There is an opening, a void, and we need an extraordinary novel-novels-by a woman, about a woman to fill it. Pomerantz’s Rich Boy at least is a start.