Duluth by Gore Vidal - review by Howard Davies

Howard Davies

Soapy Satire



Heinemann 205pp £7.95

In a very long Spectator piece late last year Gore Vidal betrayed a certain sense of disappointment with his English critics. The ostensible purpose of the article was to attack Auberon Waugh who had, Vidal claimed, ruined his chances of election to the US Senate by casting damaging aspersions about his sexual habits in an American magazine. I believe that a case is pending, so further comment on this subject is out of order. But Vidal did also reveal that in general he felt badly done to by Engish critics. Though since, it thus transpired, his opinion of the London literary establishment was not high, it was hard to see why he should care about its attitude at all.

Now of course one should not be influenced by this sort of thing. Mr Vidal is old enough to look after himself. After all if he does not like the reception his next book receives I am sure that the columns of some journal or other will be open to him to say so. He can write another wholly unpersuasive self-justification, and get paid handsomely for it.

Yet I will allow myself to be influenced to the extent of saying at the outset, rather than Lidden somewhere in the penultimate paragraph, that Duluth is jolly funny at times. It may well, in fact, be a lot funnier than I think. It might easily be the most amusing satire ever written. I would certainly not wish to rule out that possibility. But the perceptive reader will have noticed an element of doubt, whose provenance I should explain. Duluth is, I think, a lisping satire on Dallas. I have not seen Dallas. Hence my uncertainty about how jolly funny and biting it is.

But it would be as well to describe something of the structure of the book to explain the non-Dallas-watching reviewer’s dilemma. Duluth is a real place in Minnesota, on Lake Superior. Gore Vidal’s Duluth is still supposed to be in Minnesota, but on Lake Erie. It is also described as being across the bay from New Orleans, and on the border with Mexico. I guess the citizens of the real Duluth are already rolling in the aisles. The idea that Minnesota, up near those crazy Canucks, should be faced with an invasion of wetbacks is, you will allow, a hoot.

This fictional Duluth is about to elect a new Mayor. The existing Mayor is running again, but he is strongly challenged by the police chief, Captain Eddie. Both feel that the key to their electoral succces probably lies in cunning exploitation of the two key volatile factors in present-day Vidal Duluth. One is the potentially explosive illegal alien question, the other is the spaceship, occupied by those cute little chaps from Close Encounters, that is parked just outside the city.

Captain Eddie’s answer to the wetbacks is a blonde lieutenant called Darlene Ecks, who conducts strip searches in the barrios, making a personal survey of what she describes as ‘little brown okra and prunes’ in the process. The proud owners of the okra and prunes take her attentions badly, feel their manhood has been impugned, and found the Aztec Terrorist Society, determined to avenge themselves on all gringos and gringas who fiddle about in their underwear. So far so funny.

But mixed up with Vidal’s Duluth, certainly not to be confused with Duluth, is ‘Duluth’, a long running soap opera about the liver of Duluth’s version of high society. Some of the characters in ‘Duluth’ are real people from Duluth, who die and reappear on TV in a different persona. This trick is attributable (at least it is attributed) to the ‘Relative fictive law of absolute uniqueness’. This is a joke about pulp fiction writers who recycle the same characters. Vidal thinks it is a pretty good joke, and cracks it often.

The third thread running through the book is ‘a tale of derring-do in Regency Hyatt England’ written by Rosemary Klein Kantor. I am not quite sure whethcr this was meant to be on television in Duluth, or possibly in ‘Duluth’. I genuinely did find it a bit hard to follow.

The tone Vidal has tried to adopt is the one used to such effect by Cyra MacFadden in The Serial. At its best Duluth just about matches The Serial, but it fails by a long shot to be as consistently amusing. It was, one must admit, a tough act to follow, but if an author of Mr Vidal’s stature decides to borrow a style he ought to make sure he can carry it off. When, describing Mrs Bellamy Craig II, the cynosure of all eyes at the Duluth Opera Mouse, he says ‘Chloris tries to frown but the plastic surgeons who created her matchless beauty had slyly snipped the frown muscles’ it seems to me he gets it right. When, on the other hand, he sends his characters to listen to a ‘lecture on Total Love by yellow Yoko Ono, who is in town, signing Frisbees, and offering her message of Total Love to all people on earth and in Duluth’ he has introduced an extraneous element, and allowed the tone to slip, in a way MacFadden never did.

Your attitude to this book will ultimately depend on whether you think Yoko Ono is worth making jokes about, or more particularly whether you are happy that Gore Vidal should spend his time making jokes about her. There are only two references to Yoko in the book, I should point out, but he takes aim at many other unmissable targets along the way.

If you think that Clive James, when he makes jokes about David Vine, is holding up a mirror to the essential dishonesty of British society and making telling points about cant and culture, you will think Duluth is the bee’s knees. If not, you may wonder whether Mr Vidal hasn’t something better to do with his time. The route from Washington DC to Duluth is downhill all the way.

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