Robert Vishniak grew up on a Northeast Philadelphia street lined with identical narrow row houses, with clotheslines laced between them, canvas work shirts flapping in the wind. It was part of the Oxford Circle neighborhood of Sharon Pomerantz’s first novel “Rich Boy” (Twelve), which was crowded with Vishniak relatives and others who kept few secrets. Robert’s father shuttled between two jobs, as a postal worker and security guard; his mother ferried school kids to safety as a crossing guard; and Robert determined to have a very different life.
This is a novel about class differences, about old money and new, about the old neighborhoods and the race to get out of them, and the challenge of feeling at home anyplace else. Much fiction has been set among the Jews of the Lower East Side, of Newark, Miami Beach and Skokie. But no one has yet mined the working-class Jewish neighborhood of Oxford Circle as Pomerantz has done so powerfully here.
“Rich Boy,” almost nine years in the making, was recently awarded the Goldberg Prize for Jewish Fiction by Emerging Writers from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, which was presented at the Jewish Book Council’s award ceremonies.
This was a story that Pomerantz has long wanted to tell, about people who are projected from working class into wealth. She grew up in Philadelphia’s western suburbs, but most of her relatives lived around Oxford Circle and she and her parents would visit often. In an interview she says that in the 1960s and ’70s, about 160,000 Jews lived in this neighborhood.
While she’s flattered to have been compared by reviewers to Philip Roth and to F. Scott Fitzgerald for writing about class and money, she has more strongly felt the influence of Grace Paley, whose women sat on the stoops in their house dresses and entered each others’ home without knocking, while their sons bagged groceries, shoveled snow and drove taxis to get to college and beyond.
The novel is quick reading for a book that’s more than 500 pages. Pomerantz has a gift for storytelling, and she is skilled at creating characters who are familiar yet inscrutable, emotionally complex and — mostly — likeable. In the background are the events and cultural shifts of the ‘50s through ‘80s, including the music, the draft and the sexual freedom of the ‘60s, when Robert escapes to attend Tufts — as the first in his family to go to college — on scholarship.
One of the challenges for Pomerantz was to write from a man’s point of view. She enjoyed trying to see the world from his perspective and appreciated the freedoms that Robert had as man. And, she says that she had to learn about the physics of male sexuality.
Robert’s hard-working, never-any-frills mother scrimps on everything, insisting “that they reuse everything from tin foil to dental floss.” Even birthday cards would be reused year after year. She and the other women of Oxford Circle scrubbed their kitchen floors “on their hands and knees, as if in worship.” The family’s rare splurge was spending some summer days in a three-story kosher rooming house a few blocks from the boardwalk of Atlantic City, with all the other relatives too, in a place called Zelda (for its owners, Zelda and Marvin).
At Tufts, Robert met others like him who were also working in the school kitchen to pay their way. “These boys were the strivers at the public magnet high schools, bused out of their communities because they were smart, arriving home each night, trying to blend in with their neighbors and families whom they secretly wanted only to abandon.”
His roommate Sanford Trace, known as Tracey, is a boarding school graduate, the son of great wealth, who thinks nothing of throwing away his tailored shirts rather than washing them. Secretly, Robert, who brought only the few shirts he owned with him, would retrieve, launder and wear the discarded shirts — and he “felt like a better version of himself.” Through Tracey, he gets his first close glimpses of the power and influence of serious money.
He eventually goes to law school, works in a leading law firm in the 1980s, and tastes wealth — and Pomerantz vividly captures the nuances of affluence; but this isn’t a straightforward rags-to-riches story. As much as Robert likes the feel of the fine woolen suits he has made for him and the $25,000 watch given to him, he’s always aware of how different his clothing is from the “scratchy blue polyester uniform” his father put on every day. For Robert, there was always a doubleness, an awareness of being different, not having the ease of those around him.
The author portrays Robert as having the kind of good looks that rarely go unnoticed and help propel him forward. He falls for three women over the course of the novel and in each case, he’s surprised, as is the reader, by their Jewish identity. One is more comfortable around his family than he is, another finds being Jewish an inconvenience and the one most comfortable with her Jewishness had been adopted into a Jewish family.
In conversation, Pomerantz speaks of wanting to portray a diverse Jewish community, bringing to light people like those she has known but who are rarely written about. Oxford Circle is no longer the Jewish community it once was; now other immigrants have taken their place, and working-class Jews live elsewhere.
“Everywhere I’ve gone, when I say that I’m from Lower Merion and went to Smith, there’s an assumption that I was rich because I was Jewish. I grew up amidst Jews who were car mechanics, plumbers and mailmen, including much of my family, who did well and had happy lives,” she says.
“I don’t come from money,” she continues. “My dad worked in a warehouse, my mom in a nursery school. They didn’t go to college. I have no trust fund, no outside means of support. Much of my adult life, the constant challenge was how was I going to support myself and do creative work.”
Pomerantz worked as a freelance journalist in New York for several years before moving to Ann Arbor to enter an MFA program at the University of Michigan. She stayed, and now teaches writing in the program, which affords her time to write fiction. While she had previously published stories, she had to teach herself to write a novel, and rewrote this one five times, from different points of view. She was interrupted several times in completing the novel, most powerfully when her father suddenly passed away in 1996 and she wondered if she’d be able to write again. The book is dedicated to her father, who always believed she could do anything.
She likes to tell other aspiring novelists. “No one had fewer connections that I did. I just had some chutzpah, and I was willing to do what it took to have the time to write.”