In our celebrity-centric culture, we often wonder at how so slim a reed can support celebrity status where no obvious talent resides. An outsized personality can make up for many deficits onscreen; a certain sort of outsized body or ego or a train-wreck personality does the trick.
Christopher Bundy’s excellent debut novel asks us to look at this phenomenon in its most extreme—and so most instructive—form: celebrity based solely on the fact that one looks like another celebrity.
Here, Kent Richman, an American ex-pat living in Japan and fluent in the language, finds himself at the top of Japan’s pop culture ladder solely because he happens to look like a young John Lennon. (Readers will find a pair of round glasses on this novel’s beautifully spare cover.)
Richman, known in Japan’s gossip press (and everywhere else in Japan, for that matter) as RI-CHU-MAN-SAN!—yes, complete with exclamation point in every iteration—hosts a top-rated and gaudy Japanese television game show called “Strange Bonanza.” He has his own catch-phrase and signature song (“Yesterday”, never mind that Paul McCartney wrote it). Toast of the J-Pop town, Richman fronts a variety of popular products, from Lark cigarettes to PECKUP! Energy Drink and Sankyou Instant Ramen. He has even married Kumi, a top Japanese model (her niche, posturing in boys’ underwear), and together they have it all.
For a moment.
Later in the book, Kent Richmond tells a friend:
I really had something, didn’t I? My own TV show, Kumi, money, scripts coming in every day, VIP rooms, endorsements. I’m young. I could have ridden that wave a long time. I know what I had, more than anybody in the world. And that I’ll probably never get it back. Don’t know why it took me so long to figure that out, but … just wanting something is not enough. It’s not enough to want to be famous. Just because you want something doesn’t mean you have a right to it, doesn’t mean you get it. But why shouldn’t I?
Yes, Kent Richman has it all … until he undertakes an affair with the wife of a pop-star shock comic, an Australian comedian named Ozman who appears on TV in full mohawk to howl and slice himself and insert needles into his face and into his body.
Think a star who “has it all” might want to second-guess himself at least once before a hook-up with such a man’s wife? Most of us would. But Kent Richman takes a stumble, then a tumble, and when he hits what he thinks is rock bottom, he finds himself in an altercation with the crazed comedian. Next? Torture, both Richman and Kumi, plus an accidental shooting and a jail term for Ozman.
But beware, reader, even here we do not reach the end of Ozman’s vengeful quest to wreak havoc on Richman’s already havoc-laden life. In conjunction with his wife leaving him and his meth habit not leaving him, Richman falls down the proverbial well. He drags us along.
Beyond the over-the-top mayhem and touching humanity Bundy so vividly renders, his cautionary tale explores the vicissitudes of pop culture. Kent Richman succumbs to the special variety of temptations and traps surrounding celebrity. He rides serial humiliations all the way down before he tries to claw his way back.
RI-CHU-MAN-SAN!, at his core a good man deeply flawed, makes mistakes and pays a pitiful (and, some may think, disproportionate) price. As a result, Baby, You’re a Rich Man feels like something between farce, with doses of over-the-top mayhem, and an exercise in voyeurism. Yet Bundy never asks us to sneer or cluck our tongues at Kent and his plight but rather to pull for him.
So what if he’s a victim of his own misdeeds? He suffers, as we all do. Bundy shows off deep writing skills in convincing us to see an edgy, self-centered, meth-addict adulterer who blew a pop-star gig as a sympathetic character.
Bundy writes vividly, and he engages. He can riff—we find funny, gruesome, unexpected, interesting and entertaining scenes all handled with equal skill.
Substance meets style. On one level, the tone of the book resonates with manga influence. On another, we find actual comic-book style drawings by Max Currie introducing the book’s chapters. Such unconventional storytelling elements allow us the treat of ingenious artwork and even offer delicious “excerpts” from a fictional Japanese celebrity gossip website.
Bundy makes wise use of flashback, too, a technique that can be surprisingly tricky. His flashbacks (sometimes violent slashbacks) always feel well-grounded, integrated into the narrative present, never gratuitous.
A central goal of the writer in creating a fictional narrative must be, of course, to continuously engage a reader. One particularly risky technique asks the reader, as the narrative unfolds, not to lose heart when told less than the fully detailed story.
The theory: A bit of “confusion,” handled correctly, can actually engage the reader.
Bundy daringly presents a lot of backstory in piecemeal fashion, including a heart-rending childhood event of major significance in Richman’s life. Bundy keeps the reader engaged by slowly doling out the goodies, often first presenting an event as merely a thinly sketched reference and then, dollop after dollop, successively adding material to fill in the gaps.
Christopher Bundy trusts his readers to take an edgy ride.
Do so. You’ll be a richer reader, baby.
R.P. Finch wrote his debut novel, Skin in the Game (Livingston Press, 2013), from personal experience in his 30-year practice of law at a major Atlanta firm. He strictly disclaims any personal experience relating to his novel’s treatment of the CIA, quantum physics labs or urban strip clubs.