REVIEW by Willard Manus

Jim Kokoris, a young Greek-American writer, is enjoying enviable luck
with his first novel, THE RICH PART OF LIFE, a cautionary tale about the
impact of too much money on the Pappases, a family living in a Chicago
suburb. Published by St. Martin's Press, the book has not only received
excellent notices and sold well, but has been optioned by Hollywood for
a forthcoming feature film.

The money has come to the Pappases in an overnight windfall worth 190
million dollars. Winning the state lottery like that is everyone's dream, but as Kokoris shows, the dream can often turn into a nightmare.

"Money complicates things," says Aunt Betty, a woman who never made
more than forty thousand a year as a bookkeeper. "It should make things
easier, but it doesn't. It's like a weight you have to keep pulling around with you. Poor Theo. He's not good with weights."

The Theo in question is the patriarch of the family, a shy, bumbling,
stiffbacked man who is only happy when he is reading or talking about the American Civil War. Theo teaches history at a local college and is trying to raise two young boys in the aftermath of an automobile accident that took the life of his wife. One of the boys, Teddy, a hyper-sensitive and intelligent kid ("a miniature adult"), is the protagonist, the one providing the viewpoint and voice that give THE RICH PART OF LIFE its unique flavor.

Kokoris is good at capturing the way Teddy's mind works, a step ahead of almost everyone else's, though he can also be touchingly innocent and childlike. Teddy is also beset by a deep- rooted fear: that his distant,
uptight father does not love him.

Theo is a mystery, not only to Teddy and his six-year-old brother Tommy, better known as the Nose Picker, but to just about everyone who knows him, including his brother Frank. Frank, a lawyer turned Hollywood producer of sleazoid horror movies, is especially horrified and mystified when Theo shows no joy upon breaking the bank.

If anything, Theo becomes more withdrawn and cautious; it's almost as if he's lost, not gained, all that money. Frank, who has had to flee Hollywood leaving a trail of bad debts and busted promises, can't believe that Theo wouldn't at least trade in his old clunker for a new car, preferably a Lexus.

Frank and Theo may be brothers, but they are opposites. As cold, cautious and retiring as Theo is, Frank is loud, flashy and volatile. He chalks up the difference between them to Theo's inherited Greekness. "By nature, Greeks are a depressed people," he tells Teddy. "We worry about everything. We're not all Zorba."

Kokoris goes light on the Greek details, though, using them to merely spice the main dish. Aunt Bess occasionally speaks to Theo in Greek, but there is nothing very ethnic about either of them.

Identity does not concern Kokoris, just the agony of overnight wealth, which he treats in largely comic fashion, employing a deadpan humor which makes for steady chuckles rather than big boffo laughs. Kokoris' most flamboyant character is Sylvanius, a Bela Lugosi-like actor who achieved B-movie fame by playing Dracula in Uncle Frank's movies.

Uncle Frank, Aunt Betty and Sylvanius try their best to help Theo cope with the bizarre problems his much-publicized new wealth bring. Suddenly a voluptuous blonde down the street has the hots for him, the local school begs him for a new furnace, poor people beseech him for handouts, ill people for medical treatment, scam artists and hustlers for "business" loans.

On top of that, a man named Bobby Lee Anderson shows up claiming to be
Teddy's father. Theo has expected this turn of events, this uncovering of the dark secret that has long been festering within.

As he tells Teddy, "I feared this from the start. The moment I won the lottery, that was my fear. That's why I almost didn't claim the ticket."

Teddy struggles to cope with a new set of realities. Not only does he learn shocking things about his father but his mother too, that she was a go-go dancer and a bigamist, a wild, rebellious woman who died a self-inflicted, horrific death just before she was about to divorce Theo.

The second half of THE RICH PART OF LIFE deals with Teddy and Theo's
threatened relationship. A psychiatrist is brought in to help, but his work is made difficult by Theo's impenetrable nature and by Bobby Lee's attempt to reclaim Teddy as his son.

The story, which has moved slowly until now, picks up considerably, shifting first to Manassa, Virginia where a reenactment of the Battle of Bull Run finds the Pappases taking part, with Theo strutting around in a Stonewall Jackson uniform, the two boys dressed as Confederate drummers, and an Abe Lincoln lookalike singing "Old Man River." It's first-rate satire.

Kentucky and Memphis also figure in Act Two, which not only becomes
swifter and funnier as the climax approaches, but goes deeper into character as well, coming up (especially where Bobby Lee is concerned) with some surprisingly poignant moments.

THE RICH PART OF LIFE focuses mainly on what happens between Theo and Teddy, a father and son who, despite all the upset and black comedy,
still keep trying to love each other. Kokoris shows a lot of humanity in this novel, which comes down hard on the side of hope and redemption.