Monday, June 23, 2008

Book review: Dizzying Heights - the Aspen Novel by Bruce Ducker

Dizzying Heights is, in fact, a dizzying book, chock-full of twisty turns and scheming characters. A satirical look at Aspen, Colorado, and her colorful denizens, this novel attempts giddy elevations only to fall slightly short under its own unwieldiness.

There is a lot of plot in Dizzying Heights. First, Wadsworth Brush, the erstwhile hero of the story, comes to town to eke out a living after having been laid off from his software-programming job in Seattle. Waddy gets a job, rescues a dog, gets a better job and falls in love a couple of times. The better job that Waddy procures is programming for a database that records consumer fantasies in order to then sell the fantasies as targeted marketing techniques to manufacturers. This fuzzily ethical database project is the brainchild of one Mortimer Dooberry, a pop-psychologist scalawag, forever searching for his next big scam. Dooberry successfully courts all the Aspen players to back his latest scheme: Victor Grant, an incredibly wealthy and ruthless financier, who sneakily intends to take over the project if it looks fruitful; Etta Eubanks, a Texas oil woman, and her alcoholic artist-husband, Sherry Topliff; Peyton Post, heir to an indoor plumbing fortune, and his financial whiz of a wife, Chloe.

Meanwhile, couturier Justin Kaye (a thinly-veiled Ralph Lauren, frankly) is working up a scheme of his own: to despoil the last undeveloped valley in Aspen, ostensibly for a wild duck preserve and hunting club but really for dozens of multimillion dollar home sites. Aspen's local eco-cops, Friends of the Friendless Earth, led by Philida Post, sister of Peyton, are adamant about protecting this last valley so Justin must do some quick finagling which ends up involving a high profile New York attorney and several local Native American tribes.

And that's just half of the characters and stories weaving around this novel! This is where Dizzying Heights breaks down: it over-reaches and ends up being confusing to the reader. I was referring to the list of "Dramatis Personae" in the front of the book well past the 100-page mark. There are several people and story lines that could have been cut entirely with no detriment to the novel: there's no need for the decadent and past-his-prime cokehead rock star or the restaurateur who gets away with serving past-its-prime fish entrees by having great salads and an excellent wine cellar, for example; even toilet-heir Peyton Post could have been edited out easily.

I can imagine author Bruce Ducker, who lived in Aspen for many years, gleefully listing all the Aspen stereotypes he wanted to parody and then being unable to cull the herd. Ducker just tries a little too hard to be clever. He's not as deft as Carl Hiaasen in this character-heavy environmental/caper genre, thus the over-reaching.

That being said, the book is fun. Ducker does a great job of painting a picture of Aspen for us, with its over-the-top social strata - the old riche, the nouveau riche, the new nouveau riche and all the hoi polloi who serve them in order to live. Dizzying Heights breaks no new ground but is definitely entertaining, a good beach read if you can keep track of who's who.

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