Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Elliot Allagash by Simon Rich

"Money, money, money
Must be funny
In the rich man's world
Money, money, money
Always sunny
In the rich man's world"

Today I am doing the unbelievable (Well, unbelievably cheesy). I am opening this review with a quote from the lyrics of Abba. Yes, THAT Abba. Because the song "Money, Money" appropriately sums up the book I just read, Elliot Allagash. It is a story about money being the most powerful bargaining chip, more powerful than talent or effort because money actually can buy talent and effort, or at the very least the appearance of talent and effort.

Seymour Herson met Elliot Allagash for the first time when Elliot pushed him down the stairs. It was a way for Elliot to test his limits, see how far he could go before he was kicked out of the last school that would accept him. Seymour is at the very bottom of the social hierarchy at Glendale Prep and therefore used to being pushed around. He is chubby, unathletic, and spends his lunchtime guzzling as many chocolate milks as possible. Then Elliot makes him a proposition: He will make Seymour into the most popular, most powerful kid in school. All Seymour has to do is whatever Elliot says.

You see, the Allagash family is incredibly wealthy. They actually own a patent for the process of making wood pulp into paper, so everything and anything that requires paper is adding to their fortune. They aren't exactly nice rich people, though. Elliot's father commissions artists to create beautiful paintings, then refuses to let anyone else see them. He plans to have them burned after his death. Once, he paid a Pulitzer Prize-winning author to write a book for him, read it and then burned it.

Elliot is a strange rich kid who likes to experiment with people, which is why he takes Seymour under his wing. There are certain social dynamics that he understands on a primitive and scholarly level, but he lacks social graces and understanding of human emotion. He pays to get Seymour basketball lessons to turn him into the best player in school, going so far as to create an actual league so that Seymour has kids with whom to practice. After a victory in athletics, Elliot decides to make Seymour into class president, a ladies' magnet, and his companion at Harvard. Basically, Elliot uses his money to turn Seymour into whomever he wants to make him at the time.

Unfortunately, Elliot doesn't play fair. All of his plans are carried out through sabotage and deception, carried out by chauffeur and manservant James. He even carries around a book of enemies, marks down people who offend them and checks the name off when the deed is done. Elliot is a very unsettling child, kind of Richie Rich gone bad or Chuck Bass on a tamer day. Sometimes I wasn't sure if I wanted to smack him or give him a hug, because he was so delightfully sociopathic.

At first, the changes Elliot makes in Seymour are positive. Seymour loses weight and gains confidence. Eventually, Seymour starts to become too similar to Elliot, too calculating. He skips parties because he is becoming too cool to attend them. He starts to keep his own notebook full of plots, stolen quiz answers, and fake information that keeps him powerful and gets him into Harvard. Seymour also starts to get too cocky and forgets where all his power came from. What will happen when Seymour finally makes his way into Elliot's enemies book?

In the end, I was incredibly relieved that Seymour didn't really suffer from any permanent damage as a result of living in the Allagash world, damage of the floating face-down in a pool like Jay Gatsby variety (Um...spoiler?). The ending is actually very simple and easy to accept. It could so easily have been a heavy-handed MONEY CORRUPTS lesson, with a dash of BE YOURSELF thrown in for good measure, but I'm glad that the author didn't take that route. Elliot Allagash was really just a quick read about the high school boy version of Pygmalion, if Professor Higgins made a maitre'd into an accidental Nazi sympathizer. Doesn't that sound like damn good times?

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