When I mentioned a week or so ago that I was in the mood for comfort reading, my friend Rebecca said she had just the book for me. A copy duly arrived in the post of Elliot Allagash by Simon Rich, a comic take on Faust set in an American high school (on the back it’s described as ‘Clueless for boys’). Whereupon, Mister Litlove fell on it, started reading it (this was a Saturday), and finished it before dinner that evening. I knew then that I was in for a treat.
Seymour Herson is the most unpopular kid at his bottom tier public school, Glendale Academy, in New York. On the whole, Seymour is okay with this. It’s not like he wouldn’t want to be one of the in-crowd, or good at his subjects, or even in with a chance with the precocious Jessica, whom everyone wants to date. But he understands the law of the jungle, and that someone has to be the outcast, and given that he sits alone in the cafeteria, consuming cartons of chocolate milk at lunchtime and preparing for after school detention, he accepts where the buck stops. He’s the only child of two sweet, rather weak-willed parents who love him and just want to be an okay sort of family, and he spends his time playing monopoly with them in the evenings, when he isn’t video gaming.
All of this changes when Elliot Allagash joins the school. You’ll know him from other incarnations. Elliot is another only son, locked in a dysfunctional twosome with his super-rich father. His family have all been wealthy, since a long lost ancestor invented paper, and with nothing to work for, Elliot and his father, Terry, have put their considerable assets to beating the system and achieving the impossible in nefarious and extraordinary ways. Elliot has already been thrown out of a dozen schools, but his father has donated just too much money to Glendale for him to be leaving any time soon. So to cure his chronic boredom, he takes Seymour on as a project. Making him the most popular kid in class looks like the toughest challenge he could undertake. And all Seymour has to do is absolutely anything that Elliot tells him.
So you’ll be familiar with where we’re going, but the devil is in the detail, as it were. All the fun of this book is in the getting there, and marvelling at the feats of imagination and daring that the Allagashes pull off to satisfy their perverse desires. While Elliot is working on Seymour, he often pauses to tell him anecdotes about other stunts he, or his father, have pulled off, and these interpolated stories add another layer of richness to the plot. There’s a very basic morality at work, though, which suggests that extreme wealth corrupts absolutely, distorts the whole notion of achievement and shows up a world that is alarmingly full of people who can be bought. But this dark undercurrent slinks along underneath the popcorn fun of high school hi-jinks and the mood is generally hilarious. Elliot soon has his way, and Seymour finds himself cutting a swathe through his enemies and heading for class president.
Four years pass, and when we pick up the narrative, Seymour is finishing off school, having been accepted at Harvard to study French (which he can’t actually speak, write or understand). Elliot has turned his life around, but Seymour has never quite fallen for the magic of megabucks. Underneath it all, he hasn’t changed an atom from the shy, ordinary, gentle boy he was at the start. So when he comes across one of the victims from the earlier pranks he pulled with Eliot, and it turns out to be a girl he rather likes, Seymour’s conscience starts to bother him. But Seymour is weak and Elliot is impossibly strong. How will Faust free himself from Satan’s embrace?
This is a good-hearted novel from start to finish, so I think I can safely get away with saying you can expect a happy ending. It is a very quick read, wholly engrossing and highly entertaining. There’s no deep, heavy message, nor are there any of the gross-out moments that characterise so much teenage-related fiction. In fact it’s good, clean fun all the way, a little festive bauble of a book and just what I was in the mood for (and Mister Litlove, too!).