Spaceships, CIA plots and trashy novels: Gore Vidal’s Duluth


A wild, reckless read, Gore Vidal’s Duluth is a complete takedown of American pop culture, c. 1980. In just over 200 pages, Vidal spoofs everything from Ronald Reagan to conspiracy theories to romantic fiction to pulpy sci-fi. His novel is a jumpy ride through genres, styles and form, often moving between stories within stories, often with a sense of how reckless the plot can get.

Basically, this is a novel about a mayoral election in Duluth, a city just south the Canadian border. It’s also a story about a crime lord in Duluth, a city just north of New Orleans. It’s about warring Betty Grable biographers in Duluth, a city just removed from a vast desert and about a spaceship landing in Duluth, a city just outside a swamp. Vidal’s Duluth is everything and nothing, changing as he needs it to represent some other part of America. It can be a bit jarring if taken literally, but when he pokes fun at everything on every page, it’s a bit hard to.

Vidal’s satire knows no bounds here. For example, there’s policewoman Darlene Ecks, the star detective on the city’s homicide squad. A model cop, she’s constantly on the prowl for illegal aliens while wearing a designer uniform. When confronted by a wide-ranging conspiracy in the city’s mayor election, she’s shocked:

“But that’s illegal,” says Darlene. But she is a true-blue policeperson and she knows the word illegal means nothing in Duluth, where only law and order reign.”

Other times, it’s more pointed: here, there’s a revolving door of Presidents, but the only one anyone sees is the old, ex-actor one, who drones on and on, in a pseudo-folksy, vaguely-Cold War tinged and mostly inane language remarkably familiar to anyone who can remember the last time an old actor was elected President:

The old television president welcomes the strangers from another world to the United States, telling them that “the latch string always hangs outside,” a sentence no one has been able to figure out. At least one pundit thinks this is a message in code to the Russians, who are still the enemy of every single peace-loving United Statesperson.

Still, Vidal’s satire is a little heavy-handed at times and I often found it a little too on-the-nose.; the stuff surrounding Ecks comes to mind. And while it’s a little dated in some ways, but in others, it’s remarkably ahead of it’s time: Dallas, after all, just returned to the airwaves and the media’s barely changed in the 30 years since Vidal wrote this.

As of this writing, Duluth seems like it’s out of print. It’s unfortunate, but it’s still cheaply had on the second-hand market; Amazon has copies going for a penny. Hopefully, it and some of Vidal’s other late novels (Kalki and the two-fer of Myra Breckinridge/Myron come to mind) will get re-released sometime soon.

Rating: 7/10. All in all, it’s a funny read. Recommended for readers who don’t mind an absurd plot, especially if they’ll get the jokes about Pynchon or Kosinski.


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