Eliot Spitzer as fiction

April 26, 2008 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: fiction, writing.

  • Novelist Richard Russo puts Eliot Spitzer into the realm of fictional hero — or protagonist.
  • Some disagreement with Russo, but it’s an interesting thought.

What if you wrote a novel about Eliot Spitzer? What would it look like?

That’s the question that novelist Richard Russo considers in an interesting column in the March 16 in the Washington Post.

The news media, Russo says, have reduced the Spitzer story to a one-dimensional tale of hypocrisy outed, and while Russo didn’t say this, they have thrown around the word “tragedy” a little freely. The real story of Spitzer is certainly as sad as it is surprising, but we would have to know more to bring it to the level of tragedy.

But what if we did know more? And what if, like a good novelist, we could make it up? That’s what Russo does to some extent. First he considers the character of Spitzer himself.

But I don’t mean to jigger the facts; fictive Eliot will do exactly what the real Eliot has done, only my guy almost never imagines getting caught. And when he does occasionally consider the possibility, he trusts that there will be ample warning that disaster is imminent. For the most part, things in his life have happened slowly, especially the good things, and he trusts that bad things will evolve similarly. He will swerve at the last moment. The possibility of a head-on collision, swift and devastating, simply never occurs to him.

Even worse, though he knows that the world doesn’t work this way, he convinces himself that if he’s caught, people will treat him fairly. Sure, he has shamed himself, but he’s done a lot of good things, too, and people will remember that. He has always employed a kind of moral arithmetic, and he’ll expect that same math to be applied to him — all his virtues set up on one side of the ledger, his one weakness on the other. People will understand that he’s mostly good. By the time my Eliot realizes that he’s wrong about all this, it’s too late. The damage is done. He has betrayed his wife, his children, his best self, and it’s all his fault.

Russo goes on to talk about Spitzer’s wife and family.

First, Eliot’s wife — and here I sense a mystery even deeper than the mystery of Eliot himself. Why does she stand there beside him at the podium when he confesses? Why do they all? I feel uniquely unqualified to look inside her heart, to ferret out her motives. I make a list of what I know (not much) and what I suspect (not much more) and wonder whether imagination will fill in all those blanks. I’m relatively certain of one thing: It’s not this woman’s fault. I won’t portray her as frigid or otherwise complicit in what has transpired. She hasn’t driven Eliot to any of this. I don’t believe in perfection, but I’ve decided for the time being that she’s been a good wife, a good mother.

Russo makes some interesting observations about how the story might play out. He gives Spitzer a sidekick who can inject a little humor into this tale. This would be a good character, as Russo conceives him. He can give Spitzer a different look at the world, as opposed to the self-center take he always has. Russo takes a look at Spitzer’s daughters to see what effect their father’s actions might have on them.

How does the story end? Here is where I would part company with what Russo has written.

There’s also a story in which Eliot isn’t even the main character. Because how believable is it, really, that they came across him by chance on that wiretap? His many enemies are justly famous as the dirtiest of tricksters. Maybe I should be writing a thriller, but I dislike and distrust plot-driven narrative and have grown fond of my own messed-up, untidy Eliot, so American in both his ambition and the disgrace that seems to flow from it so naturally. I might not know precisely why he’s done what he’s done, but he connects to my long-held conviction that people (in fiction, in life) aren’t meant to be saints, or to be treated like saints. That’s the hard lesson Hawthorne’s Reverend Dimmesdale learned from the pulpit.

I’m not sure why Russo distrusts “plot-driven narrative.” I’m not even sure what that means.

In my take, a good plot comes first, characters second. I can see Spitzer brooding about his losses and his own stupidity, searching for some redemption. But he doesn’t brood for long. He acts in character. One storyline is that he has been set up. Someone somewhere has taken advantage of his foibles to do him in. Maybe there is ample justification, something we don’t know yet. Spitzer goes on a quest to discover what he doesn’t know.

I think I’d like to go with him.

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