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The Rich Man's Table





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About the book:

Scott Spencer has not yet written the Great American Novel, but the stunning opening of Endless Love (which puts the Brooke Shields film version to shame) is a fair contender for the Great American First Chapter. A study of obsessive lust, it belongs just one shelf down from Lolita. And Spencer's 1995 Men in Black, about a downtrodden serious novelist who pens a trashy bestseller about space aliens, is by most accounts even funnier than the 1997 sci-fi comedy of the same name.

Now Spencer has written the Great American Novel About Bob Dylan. The Rich Man's Table calls Dylan Luke Fairchild, and it's narrated by his illegitimate son, Billy, obsessed with forcing Fairchild to acknowledge him. Now, the real Dylan's (legitimate) son is the bandleader of the Wallflowers, and his papa is clearly proud that both of them have hit albums (Bringing Down the Horse and Time Out of Mind, with tie-in paperbacks for both Bringing Down the Horse and Time Out of Mind).

Even so, Spencer's Luke Fairchild is a completely plausible, richly detailed portrait of the rock star Dylan might have been in a parallel world. "How did a shapeless Jewish kid from the Midwest become so famous, so beloved, so despised, so lonely, so pious, so drug-addicted, so vicious, so misunderstood, so overanalyzed?" wonders Billy, who proceeds to find out by interviewing everybody Luke ever knew. Young Luke (a "faintly girlish beauty") learns his trade from old blues singers and New York pinko folkies, spurns them for decadent rock, sings about an unjustly accused man who embarrassingly turns out to have been justly accused of murder, and ages badly. ("The mockery was gone ... his drugged-out eyes were no more expressive than olives.") Luke is high and mighty about being down-home and unpretentious, like Dylan who, when he was offered fine wine by the Beatles, demanded cheap wine instead (and guzzled the fine wine while waiting for the cheap to arrive by expensive courier).

So close is Luke to Dylan that much of Spencer's novel constitutes a clever criticism of Dylan's actual pretensions and achievements. Unlike the deranged Romeo who narrates Endless Love, Billy makes the object of his obsessive affections come to life as a character. To verify Luke's similarity to the real singer, check out Bob Dylan's only book, Tarantula.

Some readers will find the roman a clef aspect of The Rich Man's Table irritating, distracting. The book's defenders will have to excuse a plot as reedy as Luke's (and Bob's) singing voice. And Luke's song lyrics, while often good pastiche, are too obviously connected to the events in his life to be fully, incomprehensibly Dylanesque.

Even so, you've got to grant Spencer's emotional perfect pitch, especially when he's describing self-deception and self-loathing. He has a poet's eye and a wicked gift for metaphor. And while he takes his characters seriously, he is a merciless satirist of celebrity culture: One doctor Billy interviews tells him, "Luke didn't have much of a capacity for pain but then added, with an inside dopester's smirk, that he did, however, have a large capacity for painkillers." We will probably never have a real insider's portrait of Bob Dylan. But who needs it? The reality can't match Scott Spencer's imagination. --Tim Appelo

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