Saturday, December 18, 2010

As I immerse myself in The Rich Man’s Table, his imagining of the life of Bob Dylan, I find myself wondering ever more implacably if Scott Spencer is the best living writer in the English language. He lacks E. E. Doctorow's moral ferocity, and his technique, paragraph by paragraph, doesn't compare to Martin Amis's, but for sheer originality of perception and beauty of expression, he stands alone, as witness: "We shook hands. Maya’s grip was slight, her hand little more than cool shadow in mine. She was full of solicitude toward me. 'I know…' — she stretched the word out, discovered rivers of complicity in the globe of the vowel…"

[Here yhe book’s narrator, Billy — the grown son for whose paternity the Dylan character, Luke Fairchild, refuses to accept responsibility — describes his fervently Marxist grandfather’s slide into dementia:] The books of philosophy, history, and literature he had so vigorously cross-referenced in his table talk by now faded from memory. His mind was a burned library — the spines and their titles still facing out from the shelves but the pages within turned to ash.

[At Esther’s bedside, Luke encounters a blues man who’d earlier sued Luke for plagiarism.] Now Joe was standing again, but this time he threw his arms around Luke and pulled him close, the way people will when death makes our squabbles so small, when it suddenly seems that our grievances and competition make as much sense as cattle vying for position in the slaughterhouse.

Many passages in which Billy talks about his father are as startling and revelatory as the best of the real Dylan’s songs:

He was the virtual prototype of the boy parents warned their daughters against. When Luke was young, fucking him was like running away from home, or maybe even joining the circus. He was vile, he was strange, the smell of freedom was all over him, that mixture of smoke and wind and cheap wine, as redolent as peanuts, sawdust, and elephants.


Mom used to say (though never to me) that Luke was an innocent, a child, beneath it all. Well, that innocence was long gone, swallowed by the muck of ego, entitlement, and drugs, revelation, conversion, and tantrum, blow jobs, anal sex, private showings, his pick of the litter, and a thousand and one rarefied pleasures and perversions I could barely imagine. He was paying the price for his life, organ by organ. And somewhere within him was the terrible sad panic of a once-holy man starting to realize that, despite everything, his body might outlive his soul.


Luke’s voice was startlingly low, a honey croon, so unlike his usual nasal, wise-ass, reedy kazoo of a voice that it caused me to wonder if he had just become a different person, or if his soul was like one of those flashlights that can shine red, white, green, yellow, or blue, mediated by a simple plastic dial over the face of it. But then I realized: this was his Nashville timbre, the almost comically resonant style he affected after he had repudiated the paisleyed psychedelia of the sixties, and began to boyishly idolize the cowboy singers, beer-bellied, eagle-eyed middle-aged men in string ties, the Nashville old guard, terse tough guys with barroom scars on their knuckles, or a bitten-off ear, a shattered knee, guys who spent more money on drugs than the Grateful Dead and Blue Cheer and the Stones combined.


He had a number of people on his beck-and-call brigade, people who tended to his menagerie of needs and whims. Needless to say, he did very little of the labor of his own life. It had been at least thirty years since he’d changed the sheets on a bed, or changed a light bulb, or stood impatiently in line for popcorn, worried the movie would start without him. Yet despite his twenty-four-hour coddling, he still maintained his angry, alienated sneer. He still wrote at if he were somehow an outlaw.


Luke was our tiny, holy kernel of hunger for heaven, sealed in a package with hundred layers of gaudy paper. He was wrapped in money, and he was wrapped in fame, in sex, drugs, politics, nostalgia, privilege; but when all of that was torn away, what was left? A soul, just a soul, a tiny, frail human soul, racing blindly and in terror through the dark woods.


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