If We Knew a Rich Man

Appeared in the Orlando Sentinel, 1998

Scott Spencer is such a tease. The central character of his new novel is so much like Bob Dylan, you wonder if Dylan’s lawyers are slobbering over plans for a lawsuit.

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Note to the author: Come on, Scott — the cover model is a dead ringer for His Bobness (pre-puffiness), the outline of Luke Fairchild’s life is basically the Dylan biography, and even the songs that you offer up as Luke’s compositions bear titles similar to Dylan’s tunes (Dylan and The Band recorded a song in 1967 called “Orange Juice Blues’; here you have Luke singing “Orange Julius Blues.’).  And in the author’s note you thank Dylan for the “thousands of hours’ his music kept you company.  Geez. That’s cutting it a little close, isn’t it?

Readers might be drawn to the novel by the similarities and assume that this book, in some way, offers insights into the life of Dylan, rock’n’roll’s Greta Garbo.

Maybe it does. Maybe it doesn’t. But the fact is many of people who read The Rich Man’s Table will think they’re gaining insight to Dylan. The close-to-the-bone nature of the story distracts us from the heart of the novel.

See, Spencer is a great novelist, but this stunt is going to encourage people to scrutinize the book for bon mots from the semi-reclusive rock star’s real life. We say “semi-reclusive” because although not much is widely known about his private life, Dylan is still pretty much on the road all the time, playing more shows than any other artist of his stature. It’s just that he’s managed to hide in plain sight.

Scott Spencer

A couple of years ago, Dylan was hit by a palimony suit from a woman who claimed to have been his common-law wife for more than a decade. The buzz on the internet news groups, the talk among Dylan junkies who could chronicle every gasp, sputter and wheeze the guy ever made was … who is she?

You’ve got to admire the guy: He sure knows how to keep secrets.

So maybe Dylan is a lot like Luke Fairchild in The Rich Man’s Table. Maybe there are a lot of illegitimate little Dylans out there, as some have claimed.  Maybe he’s had a couple of common-law wives.

But creating a character that’s really just Dylan-with-a-name-change undercuts the book. It’s hard to concentrate on a novel and get lost in the wonderful experience of which, when the novel panders to the audience’s expectations of a real-life person. It’s either him or it isn’t. So this book does itself an injustice.

For the record (so to speak), The Rich Man’s Table (Bible quote time: “Lazarus longed to eat the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table.”) is the tale of Billy Rothschild, illegitimate child of fabled performer Luke Fairchild. Billy’s mother was the girl foot-slogging through Greenwich Village on Luke’s arm on his breakthrough album. (Just like real-life Suze Rotolo with the real-life Dylan on the cover of Freewheelin’.) While still a boy, Billy learns of his parentage and tries to get his father to acknowledge him. That doesn’t come, but Billy’s mother is critically injured in an accident and Luke and Billy are each forced to make a resolution.

Good story, huh? It is and, as always, Spencer is masterful. It’s too bad a good story gets lost under this cloud of  Dylan conjecture.

Note to author: Hey, maybe this would work if you make Luke Fairchild a reclusive game-show host. What do you think?