WHO WOULD have guessed that America is a hotbed of people yearning to write like Charles Dickens? I didn't, so have been hip-deep for the past seven weeks in urchins, orphans, beadles, lawyers and other standard Dickens paraphernalia.
On Jan. 24 I invited readers to compose lists of 10 well-known living people whose names Dickens, with his passion for fitting the perfect name to each of his characters, might have used in a story. Plot outlines were invited, but not required. The prize: tax-free fame! Winner's name to be published here.
Instead of the five or six replies anticipated, entries arrived in bales and keep coming. Doctors warn that reading one more will surely finish me off, so the contest is now closed.
The judges -- a.k.a. me -- have picked two winners. For Best Story With Best Dickensian names, the prize goes to William S. Whiting of Cortland, N.Y., for a wittily long-winded parody that moves between "dirty, smokey, foggy, greasy, dusty, glorious" London to "the idyllic village of Ham-on-Wye."
His characters include a retired police sergeant named Kevin Bacon ("round face, small eyes, pointed ears and porcine snout") and an athletic but mentally impoverished young village parson, the Rev. Strom Thurmond.
Young Strom's mental weightlessness matters little to "Madonna, the saintly daughter of chicken farmer Orrin Hatch." Her "virginal heart flutters every time she listens to Strom read [very slowly] the epistle. . . ."
Brenda M. Bergeron of Farmington, Conn., wins for Best List of Characters. Her stars: Sir Regis Philbin, "miserly, wealthy, despotic coal-mine owner," and Rev. Howard Stern, "coldly handsome, obsessed with the oppressive conditions at Sir Regis' mine, a man of the cloth who is missing a human side."
Her other characters include Bob Newhart, an orphan; Lord James Swaggart, a red-faced boor "whose opinion is valued only because of his social standing," and Henry Kissinger, "working-class lover boy who can't settle down with one woman."
The judges gave a Special Award to the Entrant With Best Dickensian Name. It goes to Merrie Good of New York City. Her entry describes a damp, below-ground pub where Hazel O'Leary, wife of pub owner Pat Oliphant, must every night watch "the ancient reprobates Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard . . . lean against each other and bray the old lullaby 'Donna Shalala.' "
The names of both Al and Tipper Gore appeared on dozens of entries, usually in butcher-shop or bullfighting careers. Hillary Rodham received a lot of play, but her husband very little. Mary Eastman of Portland, Ore., however, visualized a Dickensian "William Clinton, a simple, tattooed village fisherman who wears the fishnets he forged in life."
The judges were also tickled by "Quentin Crisp, potato chip magnate," submitted by Barbara Boyle of Springfield, N.J. There were Rush Limbaughs by the dozen, including the superior "broken-down old NFL linebacker" from Anne Bernays of Cambridge, Mass.
Morley Safer of New York City, working solely with names from the Congressional Directory, produced the perfect name for a Dickensian law firm: Wallop, Wilder, Rangel and Boxer. (Senators Barbara Boxer and Malcolm Wallop, Rep. Charles Rangel, former Gov. Douglas Wilder.)
Other names turning up repeatedly were Newt Gingrich, Donald Trump, Wolf Blitzer and Arlen Specter. Since Senator Specter is running for president, it's painful to tell him his name everywhere evokes thoughts of ghosts and death.
In a Dickens plot submitted by James Dette of Weehawken, N.J., for instance, Mr. Specter is the character "who knows where the bodies are buried." Mr. Dette, incidentally, notes a gold mine of Dickensian names in the real names of movie stars who didn't like them.
For example: Maurice Micklewhite (Michael Caine), Arlington Spangler Brugh (Robert Taylor), Frances Gumm (Judy Garland).
The judges wish to comfort the hundreds of entrants who did not win. Any one of them may well have had entries just as good as our winners. Being human, the judges dozed often while reading these mountains of literature and, so, probably overlooked a lot that was wonderful. We apologize.
We offer special apologies to all those students whose teachers made them come up with ideas. Most were first-rate.
Russell Baker is a New York Times columnist.