Like The Young Lions, Rich Man, Poor Man tells the separate stories of three protagonists even as it gradually intersects those plots. Tom, Gretchen, and Rudolph are like bumper cars on long elastic bands. Their initial collision during Gretchen's affair with Teddy Boylan sends them recoiling in different directions until the elastic of sibling relationship brings them back together in another collision. In turn, the new head-on crash sends them outward again. This pattern is repeated in each of the novel's four books. With each collision, however, the impact is less violent, and the centripetal force bringing them together grows stronger. Like The Young Lions, the novel ends with a fatal confrontation in which the best, the most humane spirit is killed. This structure keeps taut the tension of the novel until the very last page.
The plot of Rich Man, Poor Man is composed of one intensive scene after another. The Jordaches battle to get ahead against forces larger than themselves. Gretchen's lovemaking, Tom's boxing, Rudolph's wheeling and dealing all have the tension of combat. The Jordaches approach each interaction as a contest in which one must lose because the other will win. Each chapter recounts a pitched battle in the ring, in bed, or in the board room. Repeated doses of melodramatic clashes over sex, glory, and money make this novel the archetypal best seller.
(The entire section is 227 words.)