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A Novel Take on an Ending

Don't joke, Eliot tells Rick. This isn't funny; he could go to jail. But to Rick's way of thinking, that's the biggest joke of all. Your average CEO can claim millions in salary and stock options in the same year his company is going down the tubes, and it's all perfectly legal. You want to know what you're really guilty of, Eliot? Cluelessness. You didn't forget who you are, you forgot where you are. This is America, pal, where you can lead the nation into war on false pretenses and be rewarded with a second term in office, but where illicit sex is and has always been an impeachable offense. (Note to self: A little of this Rick character goes a long way.)

How will my Eliot's story end? Do I wait for real-life events to unfold or make something up? What kind of story will it be? A tragedy? Maybe, but somehow I don't think so.

My Eliot's no Gatsby, and there's no reason he should wind up floating face-down in the pool. What he's really done is blown it. He's had a great opportunity, and he's blown it. There will be both private and public consequences. He will be punished, and he will punish himself. He will survive. So will his family. People do. What is the basis for such breezy optimism? Well, for one, there's historical precedent. Hillary Clinton wasn't done in by her knucklehead husband. I wouldn't pretend to know what's in her heart, but she's clearly functioning. And Chelsea, God love her, seems to have weathered the effects of her old man's late-onset adolescence.

Sure, there are other stories I could spin around the skeletal facts as we know them. For instance, there's a compelling story in which Eliot isn't so much a man as a condition common to men, especially middle-aged men, none of whom seems able to keep it in his pants. Eliot just does what they all do. Thanks to a mountain of evidence, I could make this story work, and it might be more satisfying to female readers, who could draw on personal experience to further enrich the tale.

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.

For years now, my Eliot (himself no stranger to the pulpit) has been besieged in restaurants, on the street, everywhere, by people telling him to keep fighting the good fight because, Eliot, you're our best hope in a world that's as depraved as Huck Finn's. Even his prostitutes agree -- don't they?

I cannot speak for the real Eliot, but some part of my Eliot has known all along that he's no saint, that he's not anybody's best hope, not even his own. He knows this even as some other part of him believes what people are telling him because, of course, he wants to. This has been his true conflict all along, and finally, explosively, it has been resolved.

Richard Russo's most recent novel is "Bridge of Sighs."


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