Posts Tagged ‘american fiction


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.


America, highly caffeinated: Thomas Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon

Mason and Dixon

Last year, one of the last holdouts against eBooks finally relented as Thomas Pynchon let Penguin publish his novels in a digital format. It was an interesting holdout, in the sense that Pynchon seems like an unchanging figure: he’s elusive, avoids the media and, I’d imagine, prefer to never own a Kindle.

But it’s a good thing for the masses and makes his books all that much easier to discover: I know more people who take their readers to the beach than I know people who read physical books at the beach. And while I think Pynchon makes for a good beach read (or bedside, fireside or just in general), it also helps that his books look less imposing in this format. After all, the man’s best books – Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, Against the Day – are doorstoppers of books.

Still, even if it’s a large and imposing looking novel, there might not be a better place to start with Pynchon than Mason & Dixon. On one level, it’s a great, long and really detailed read about the two men whose names lent themselves to one of the more infamous parts of America. On another, it’s about how American might have been doomed from the get-go. On any level, it’s enjoyable and readable as hell, no matter the format.

Pynchon’s novel follows Jeremiah Dixon and Charles Mason as they travel across the world and the US, in locales as distant as the Cape of Good Hope and as well known as Philadelphia, charting transits of planets and laying the infamous Mason/Dixon line. Along the way, the duo get involved in everything from Jesuit conspiracies to a love affair between a French chef and a mechanical duck. They chart eclipses, just rip through the woods and drink prodigious amounts of coffee. This isn’t a straightforward novel of cartographers. It’s a wild ride, filled with memorable scenes and a look at pre-revolution America, not to mention England and South Africa.

Along the way they meet people like George Washington, Dr. Johnson, a talking dog and a guy who travels everywhere with his pet electric eel. One thing that surprised me was how many of these people (and events!) actually happened: for example, Nevil Maskelyne was a real person and was related to Robert Clive, who’s name is dropped whenever someone speaks of obscene wealth. No word on if he was this offbeat, though: here he’s a guy who means well, but is completely out to sea.

There’s so, so much here to chew on. The tragic love story of Charles and his late wife Rebekah; the stir-crazy people in South Africa, who’s underlying guilt is slowly driving them insane as they wander out into the desert; the dissertations on feng shui; hallow Earth theories and alien abductions and secret transmissions across the planet by the Jesuits. There’s the workings of Pynchon’s writing: the way it’s narrator changes up depending on the audience, the way his plot slowly works out of focus (how could one man know so much?). It’s enough that one could take all summer to read this book and still be thinking about it come Christmas (It was vice versa for me).

Rating: 9/10. Mason and Dixon’s a hilarious and occasionally moving read that’s one of the best things I’ve read in a while. I found it pretty easy to read too: it’s dense and Pynchon used a pseudo-18th century kind of syntax, but it’s worth sticking with; after 50 or so pages I barely even noticed anymore. Highly recommended, folks. With a new Pynchon on the way this fall, this is the best way to get into his works.


The Secret Lives of Small Town America – Lynn Lauber’s White Girls


A short but well written collection of stories, Lynn Lauber’s White Girls does a great job capturing a small town in the early 1960s: the ennui of housewives, the grittier people at the edges of suburbia and a tense, dark underlying racial tension.

Set in Union, Ohio, White Girls follows the early years of Loretta Dardio through a series of related stories that each show a side of her hometown. Her dad works at a department store and sells insurance on the side and her mom is a housemaker. While they try to look like a happy family, their lives are a facade masking major problems: their marriage is on the rocks, her mom is frustrated by her limited role in life and Loretta seems like the only person in her neighbourhood willing to speak kindly to racial minorities.

An example: early in the book, a black family moves across the road from the Dardios. They’re frozen out by the neighbours, who start a neighbourhood watch and loiter around that family’s house, staring at them like they’re intruding on something. It’s an act of unspoken racism designed to drive them back to the other side of the tracks. When it works, the neighbourhood doesn’t say anything about victory, but only about property values. Everyone knows what they’re doing but are either too embarrassed or too polite to admit it.

It’s easy to compare this to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio because it takes a similar look at another Ohio town. Like with Anderson’s novel, I appreciate the smaller touches Lauber’s included: the local TV studio which makes stars out of people who can’t find work in larger cities, the role of a homecoming queen, the radio station signing off at night. Lauber’s done a great job at capturing small town life and the people who populate Urban.

But this book goes a little further into the thoughts and judgements of it’s citizens than Winesburg ever did. There’s the forgotten old women, complaining to anyone who’ll listen in a department store bathroom; the bar near the bowling alley where lonely people meet; the racism of the main character’s family, which is never especially overt but is always there just out of reach. Late in the book, Loretta’s brother starts talking about what calls a conservative view of race relations; he’s another casualty of the small-mindedness of this town.

In the second part of the book, Lauber expands her focus from the lilly-white community around the Dardios to the other side of town, showing how the minority population is effected by this racial tension. One of these stories (Homecoming)  is the best story in the book: it shows how the pressure put on everyone to accept their parents roles can backfire as the teenagers strive to create their own identities. And maybe that’s the lasting impact of this book: how much of these attitudes are inherited? And if so, how can we get past them?

Rating: 8/10. A great debut by Lauber (who seems to have not done much since, unfortunately  and one of the most overlooked novels of the past 20 years. The one thing I didn’t like about White Girls was how at just under 200 pages, it flies by. It’s gets a little dark, especially once you start poking around the corners Lauber hints at, that’s part of why I’d recommend it to anyone. It’s worth hunting down a copy.