It has been an auspicious year for Bob Dylan. He survived a heart infection, won three Grammys (his son Jakob won two) and played for the pope. Too bad "The Rich Man's Table," Scott Spencer's quasi-bio masquerading as a novel about Dylan, isn't nearly as successful. Actually, the latest offering from the author of "Endless Love" and "Men in Black" is a memoir-inside-a novel, the supposed true-life story of one Billy Rothschild, a substitute teacher in his late 20s who may or may not be the illegitimate (and unacknowledged) son of Luke Fairchild, aka Stewart Kramer, "a shapeless Jewish kid from the Midwest" who became the bard of his generation.
Like Dylan, Luke (who accumulates acolytes known as "Lukologists," a clear reference to the "garbologists" who used to rifle through Dylan's trash for clues to his songs and his life) plays in the Greenwich Village folk clubs in the '60s, gets famous, gets girls, gets religion, etc. He also, says Billy's beauteous mother, Esther, fathered Billy. Desperate to find out all he can about Luke -- and to get the creep to acknowledge him -- Billy goes around interviewing everyone connected to him.
In these early sections, Spencer portrays Luke's/Bob's world with breathtaking accuracy: the Sullivan Street scene in the hippie-folk days, the life of the Little Red School House (known as the Red Diaper Baby school for its quantities of hippie/commie kids), the lyrics that, when recited, walk the line between poetry and pomposity. And Spencer, we all know by now, can write: A girl in the neighborhood has "a face as blunt and expressionless as a knee"; Billy responds to a stepfather-wannabe with the "sour, slightly contemptuous thoughts ... common in fatherless boys who pine for a man's love." At evoking an era and its sensibility, at pinning down spinning emotions, Spencer has no equal.
Still, the novel doesn't work, largely because no one in it, besides Luke, is very compelling. Cut from cardboard, the supporting cast here -- with the notable exception of Billy's maternal grandfather, a feisty Communist curmudgeon who once attacked the great Luke with his cane -- seems to exist only to impart information to Billy. Esther, Little Joe (a onetime friend of Luke's), even Sergei Kapanov, the Russian body builder Luke publicly defends against a murder charge (Spencer's version of Hurricane Carter, the fighter about whom Dylan wrote a famous song), are mere props. And Spencer's plot -- about a car accident in which Esther is seriously injured -- seems contrived as yet another opportunity for Billy to confront Luke.
Ultimately, though, the biggest problem is Billy himself, a one-dimensional character with only one main activity: badgering Luke into admitting paternity. An obsessive who's more than willing to use Luke's bad behavior as an excuse for everything unpleasant or unfinished that ever happens to him, Billy is the original Johnny One-Note, with a voice as whiny and abrasive as any early Bob Dylan song. If only he -- and his story -- were as memorable.