Simon Rich’s debut novel, Elliot Allagash, is about a young well-intentioned nerd named Seymour who tricks and cheats his way to high school popularity and an exemplary academic record. When a diabolical and endlessly wealthy new classmate — the Elliot Allagash who gives the book its name — decides to become Seymour’s ally, he turns the geek’s life around — just to see if he’s powerful and clever enough to do it. In the end — and this spoils very little about this hilarious, tightly wound story — Seymour is caught, and the life Elliott has so athletically built for him unravels.
The book came out at a funny moment, mere days after a 23-year-old named Adam Wheeler was kicked out of Harvard for allegedly faking a tall pile of academic credentials, including his SAT scores and his high school transcripts, and trying to grift his way to a Rhodes scholarship. Though Wheeler has entered a not guilty plea, he has already been publicly humiliated and his life has been placed on hold indefinitely while the evidence is evaluated.
While Elliot Allagash has far from a happy ending, the story trails off in a way that suggests that hope and love will overpower what would initially appear to be Seymour’s unfathomable, devastating disgrace. Though most everyone is laughing and cherishing their angle on his tailspin, there are people who are willing to protect him until the storm passes. One starts to see how even trouble as grave as what Adam Wheeler got himself into is survivable. Not to be all “kids these days,” but considering how many times they’ve watched it happen at this point, online and on their TVs, the young readers this YA book is being marketed to must be absolutely terrified of the sort of media-driven ruin Seymour suffers in this book, and for that reason Elliot Allagash is a relavant story for them, and everyone else, to be reading right now.
The story of Adam Wheeler lines up so well with the one Rich has written for Seymour that one wonders whether the accused con boy had an Elliot Allagash holding his hand and egging him on throughout all of his apparent deceptions. It’s a horrifying thing, to imagine yourself in his position, and without giving too much away, it’s exactly what you get at the end of Rich’s book, wherein all the lies and manipulations Seymour has carried out over the course of his four-year friendship with Elliot are exposed — first on a television show, then in newspapers around the country — and his once-promising future is suddenly, cruelly erased. “They’re going to be mean to me,” little Seymour says, shortly after his world comes apart and he goes into hiding, in what is just one of many air-tight, on-point renderings of nightmarish fear that appear in the book. Is this not definitely how Wheeler felt when he got the first indication that his jig was up?
Elliot Allagash is a superb novel, not just good-naturedly funny but emotionally gripping, thanks to the bewildering swiftness with which Rich knows how to build characters and establish dynamics between them. The young author — also a Saturday Night Live writer who, full disclosure, is going to be appearing at a reading I’m hosting next month — gives backstory in places where he could have been forgiven for skipping it entirely but does so economically and unobtrusively so that it feels natural, rather than dutiful. Seymour changes slowly even though the book takes two hours to read, as does the fragile friendship between him and the omnipotent, genie-like Elliot. Finally it’s about one boy giving up on another that will leave you happily sure that, should you ever screw up as badly as Seymour (or Adam Wheeler) did, there will always be someone in your life who won’t give up on you.