[8 May 2008]
Bruce Ducker’s first novel, 1975’s Rule by Proxy, earned him favorable comparison to John Marquand and Louis Auchinchloss, and in the intervening years the Colorado lawyer has produced several short stories and seven novels (including the Pulitzer-nominated Marital Assets). But rather than taut high literature references, while reading his latest, Dizzying Heights, it was impossible to shake the feeling that I was reading Colorado’s answer to Carl Hiaasen. As both a fan of Hiaasen and a long-time resident of Colorado, this didn’t bother me in the slightest.
Anyone who’s read a fair amount of Hiaasen can tell you that his main theme is the degradation of his native Florida in the face of population influx, money, and their subsequent drives towards environmentally devastating development. Amid various stories filled with crime, crooks, and corruption, the unifying thread is a long lament for the soul of Florida. Every new Hiaasen novel must be a nightmare for the Florida Tourism Board and assorted chambers of commerce.
And as anyone who’s spent a fair amount of time in Colorado can tell you, the mountain town of Aspen is the embodiment of that same money and attendant plundering ported to the Rocky Mountains. Trade the lush swamps and sandy beaches for the crisp air and austere wilderness of mountain country, and the stories are all too similar. A small town that has rapidly become a playground for the rich, Aspen is as much a brand as Beverly Hills or Park Avenue. Part address, part status symbol, life in Aspen is dominated by the divisions that separate its real estate from the rest of the region. Not that money doesn’t flow freely into other mountain communities such as Vail, Telluride, and Breckenridge, but Aspen is more than just in a class of its own—it’s class in itself, and Ducker plays on both the reality and the myth of these circumstances to great advantage.
Unlike Hiaasen, whose central characters tend towards the world-weary and wise, our main guide in Dizzying Heights is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Brush, aka Waddy, a comically innocent and uncertain youth whose laying off from a software development job sends him on a blind quest out of his native Washington state to find new opportunities. His journey takes him east until a mistaken map reading lands him in Aspen. Like most of Aspen’s residents, Waddy is an immigrant, but unlike most others, he arrives poor and prospectless in a land of trust fund babies and the mega-wealthy. Parlaying his knowledge of food gained though a childhood working in his mother’s catering business, Waddy soon secures a job waiting tables at the most prestigious restaurant in town, the winkingly-named Pantagruel (where the fine wines and market-fresh veggies mask the decidedly un-fresh seafood), hovering by the tables of tycoons.
An acknowledged comedy of errors, Dizzying Heights uses the Pantagruel location as a focal point for the cast of caricatures that drive the plot. Run by the faux-Italian-accented Frankie Rusticana, Pantagruel’s success is driven entirely by appearances and the understanding that being the place to be is about being seen and making the wealthy clientele feel special. So long as the social benefits of being given prime seating at the trendiest restaurant in town are maintained and the dinner bills are appropriately exorbitant, deals will be brokered among the town’s powerful and substandard food will be overlooked. Pantagruel is an internal metaphor for Ducker’s gently satirical observations that wealth is as capricious as anything, with the vain rich buying, investing, and selling based on status as much as business acumen.
In his job as a waiter, Waddy stumbles into a dinner-table business pitch being run by celebrity psychologist and scam artist Mortimer Dooberry, who has wheedled some of Aspen’s upper-crust into a speculative software venture created out of thin air. Overstepping his bounds as a waiter, Waddy uses his software background to assure the investors that their project is technically possible, and soon he’s whisked out of the down-valley trailer home he’s shared with Pantagruel hostess Annalee and into the world of Aspen’s elite, once more designing virtual reality programs and crunching numbers. It’s a world made up of over-the-top characters, including a larger-than-life Texas oil baroness, a gold-digging Brazilian runway model, a pot-addled heir to the toilet bulb fortune, whose sister happens to be the town’s eco-cop, and other stereotypes writ large. There’s even the semi-obligatory sage, a former economics professor turned homeless mansion-squatter who pops in and out of parties to trade social theory with the elite while pocketing their hors d’oeuvres. To Ducker’s credit, while the cast verges on ludicrous at times, they all manage to fit the comic tone of the story, and he gives just enough voice to each that they never feel overly cartoonish (again like Hiaasen), but rather are easily understood within their roles.
While Waddy and Dooberry are working on their scheme—the one in earnest, the other just to float the bills until the next scam rolls in—a secondary plot develops following the plans of the affectedly nature-loving fashion designer Justin Kaye to turn one of the last pristine valleys in Aspen into a multi-million dollar housing development. Kaye’s plans are just as much a scam as Dooberry’s, though in most respects more sinister for their environmental impact and the final erosion of what drew so many to Aspen in the first place. Here, Ducker truly uses Dizzying Heights to speak to the natural beauty of the mountain setting, even as its corruption is plotted. Runaway development in Colorado is a continuous concern to its residents, even as economic forces seem to push it forward regardless, and this book doesn’t spare on casting developers in a dark and greedy light. Of course, because Aspen’s elite are interwoven in the town’s life, the two threads weave together and overlap as schemes and plans pile on top of each other.
And, of course, because this is a comedy of errors, relationships play the third thread. For Waddy, it’s being torn by his early obsession with the almost ridiculously aloof Lisa—the project manager at Waddy’s old software firm, with whom Waddy had a brief one night stand, and who re-enters his life when Dooberry hires her to manage the new virtual reality venture—and the easy-going hostess Annalee, who Waddy presumes to be gay, considering that she’s just ended a relationship with a woman when he meets her. But there is far more here than a simple love triangle, as the intimate lives of the upper crust also overlap meaningfully. Though scam artist Dooberry’s runway model wife is routinely cheating on him, occasionally with a South American maid and the pot smoking toilet heir, it’s not a question of everyone cheating on everyone else, but more of trying to find the right partner and resolve underlying issues in existing relationships. On this front, it’s the matronly figure of the oil baroness, Etta Eubanks, acting as matchmaker that gives the books its air of classical comedy. Though Dizzying Heights doesn’t end in a wedding, it does end with an ever-so-neat tying of the bow where resolutions tend to work out for the good of all involved in this complex tale (though there are a few questionable curve-balls thrown into the final scenes to keep it from seeming too predictable).
And in all of the satire and gentle comedy, Dizzying Heights works well, staying lighthearted, with just enough plot twists to keep things interesting, and characters unraveling from stereotypes to more sympathetic individuals over the course of the book. But it’s Ducker’s use of language that separates his spin on the well-worn form and makes the book his own. Not only does Ducker display a keen sense of intelligence in breaking down the various structures of business, investment, and law and makes them both real and understandable for the reader, but he displays a far more poetic sense of his setting than most comedic writers. The Colorado Ducker describes is in the details, from understandings of local history to the precise and intricate descriptions of the flora and fauna. Ducker reveals his knowledge of and love for the mountain environment in these meticulously crafted descriptions. At times the prose drifts towards the prosaic and away from the story, but he always manages to reel it back in as a means of showing exactly what nature these characters are dealing with, either in their attempts to exploit it or to appreciate and save it.
That said, the novel does overstep itself a couple of times, stretching the sense of disbelief with a causal string of synchronicity that occasionally feels forced. Then again, that’s what makes the comedy of errors so fun. If the most shallow and stereotypical character gets killed in a bit of karmic justice, and that death restores order to the rest of the cast in silly ways, well, then it’s drawing on a long tradition. The one thing that did elicit a groan from me were the stray moments when Ducker couldn’t resist knocking on the fourth wall and dropping a couple of lines of meta-humor. In particular, having the final scene close on dialogue that actually states “Does this mean there will be a sequel?”, and to be affirmatively answered, seemed completely unnecessary and jarring.
But if the tease of taking up the Aspen tale again in a later book proves true, it will make up for the awkward close. Ducker has already made his mark in Colorado as a local author with national prestige, having earned the Colorado Book Award for Lead Us Not Into Penn Station. With Dizzying Heights, Ducker turns away from some of the more sorrowful themes of his past to have a little fun at money’s expense, and in doing so highlights some of the contradictions of Colorado with a sense of charm and wit. Like Hiaasen, it’s a double-edged sword, exposing the rot and lies while validating the inherent beauty of the place, but that’s what makes it so effective. A return is certainly welcome.