The Duke Don't Dance
By Richard Sharp
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
Following the lives of several friends across decades and continents, The Duke Don't Dance is a relatively short novel that feels epic. The novel begins in 2011 at the funeral of Frank Miller, a former pilot who flew secret missions during the Vietnam War. Named after the criminal from High Noon, Frank embodies the macho identity of the Cold War male. Although when I read it, the name Frank Miller meant the writer of hyper-manly ultraviolent graphic novels like Hard Boiled, 300, and Sin City.
The Duke Don't Dance characters are as idiosyncratic as the writing itself. There is Lillian, a former wild child who endures several marriages but maintains a remarkable personal dignity. Rafi is a pro-Castro Cuban who eventually cashes in on the tech boom. Frank trades in his covert ops spurs and joins a DC lobbying firm given the nickname Ward 22 after the Joseph Heller book.
Throughout the novel, the characters deal with their peculiar place in American history. Born too late to enjoy the victory and confidence of the Greatest Generation and forced to deal with the whining and entitlement of Generation X. Usually a novel this self-conscious of its own generational problems would suck. (Compare the self-importance of Reality Bites to what the movie Office Space says about Gen X malaise.) But it doesn't suck. Far from it. When one character, the ad executive Ted, his friends think he's an insufferable blowhard. Sharp lacerates Ted when he accuses the boomers of selling out with the film The Graduate. In hipster speak, Ted hated the film before it was cool. "Boomer self-pity looked stupid because the times were so good compared to the times of their predecessors, but it was human nature." In the opening funeral scene, Sharp describes the scene with a combination of detailed human portraits and barbed social satire. He nails the fact that iPhones and iPads are "instruments of solipsist contemplation."
By the time we get through marriages, divorces, deaths, disasters, and affairs, we circle back to 2011 and the characters sorting things out in a heartfelt reunification after the funeral, sharing drinks and memories of good times and bad. The back cover blurbs compare The Duke Can't Dance to works by Joseph Heller and Henry James. A tall order to live up to. If one wants to read a well-written epic encompassing everything from covert ops to lobbying to technological change, this is the book to read. Saying it is a brilliant self-published novel cheapens the praise. This is simply a great book.
Out of 10/9.0