By Leah Greenblatt
Updated August 04, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

There?s nothing quite as classically American as the myth of the self-made man. And Sharon Pomerantz?s compulsively readable debut begins not only with an F. Scott Fitzgerald epigraph but also a fittingly Gatsby-ian striver at its center: Robert Vishniak, the golden-boy progeny of a working-class Jewish family in 1950s Philadelphia whose singular drive to transcend his circumstances is — almost — matched by his abilities. As a boy, he craves the security and social acceptance that comes with money; as a young man, he is ushered into the rarefied, sweet-smelling world of those who possess it in staggering amounts.

There?s more than a little of Saul Bellow?s Augie March in Robert, too, especially in Rich Boy?s opening chapters, populated by a colorful cast of neighbors, extended family, and schoolmates (his romantic education begins early). Soon enough, though, he finds escape via admission to a top-tier Northeastern University, where his charm and good looks garner him a new class of friends: the type who sail and casually discard their soiled Brooks Brothers shirts, ”So soft and so beautifully cut that Robert could not let them go to waste.” He may wear their castoffs, but it takes more than high-thread-count cottons to pass as one of them.

It would spoil Pomerantz?s pleasingly soapy narrative to detail too much of Robert?s subsequent journey, first in 1960s Boston and then in the go-go Manhattan of the ?70s and ?80s. But while his tale often feels allegorical — few of each respective decade?s zeitgeisty totems pass him by, and several characters echo familiar archetypes — Rich Boy is told with such page-turning skill that its pleasures, if not deep, feel rich indeed. A?

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