GORE VIDAL means to amuse in Duluth, a flamboyant satire in the manner of Myra Breckenridge, and from time to time he does. At its most penetrating, Vidal's wit is agreeably malicious; he has selected here a long list of targets that ache for demolition--among them avant-garde fiction and its academic critics, the oratorical style of Ronald Reagan, the vocabulary of psychobabble, and the hegemony of television--and he leaves many of them in pieces on the floor. There can be no question that Vidal had a grand time writing Duluth, and some of that pleasure is passed along to the reader.

But there's a funny, or not-so-funny, thing about Vidal. He is arguably the most accomplished and authoritative essayist in the United States; he is a person of indisputable sophistication and savoir vivre; he is equally at home in a literary salon or a public-policy debate; he is all of these things, yet he is capable of--no, he relishes--retailing a brand of witless, slapstick humor that would cause a sophomore to blush. There is much at which to laugh in Duluth but there is even more, alas, at which to wince. His crudity can be astonishing, to wit:

"The news team at Six O'Clock News consists of one Oriental female, one Occidental male and one paraplegic Polynesian--a first for the Greater Duluth area, particularly in sports, where Leo Lookaloney is popular not only as an interviewer in the dressing rooms of the Duluth Tigers but as an occasional first base at charity games."

"Aware that one of the drunken servitors in livery is watching this potentially compromising gesture--in Chloris's social position she must be above suspicion, like Caesar's Palace. . . . "

"Like all the great figures in life and literature, he is very domestic--Gargantua, John F. Kennedy, Beowulf, you name him or her and he or she will be a good family man, or as Julius Caesar, the rhetor, once asked, 'If you fail at being a husband and parent, what have you got, life-wise?'"

This is 2 funny? Well, perhaps so, in the way that the graffiti on a men's room wall or the maunderings of a living-room comic are funny; we laugh not because any genuine wit is present but because we have encountered the appearance of humor, even if in its rudest form. Over and again, Vidal indulges himself in wordplay of the most strained, yet obvious, variety: formulaic romantic novels are set in "Regency Hyatt England," public television is the "Petroleum Broadcasting System." Surely Vidal can do better than this.

As, of course, he can. When a writer of Vidal's gifts fires off as many rounds as he does in Duluth, a few at least are bound to find their targets. There is for instance the spaceship that lands in Duluth with a cargo of extraterrestrials who seem to have been spawned in California: " 'Love one another,' they sing in unison, waving their tiny hands in the air to the sounds of unearthly music. 'Be supportive of one another,' they hum." There's the "principle called Pynchon's false corollary," which "seldom works outside a university literary lab," and "the Kosinski Communal Effect Class at Langley, Virginia, where half the modern classics now being taught were assembled by a team of word-processors with access to the largest memory bank in literary history assembled--the truth can now be told--by Roland Barthes, a French CIA mole, now dead--of what looked to be a street accident!" There's "the old television president" orating on the air:

"As all you folks know, we're turning everything back to the states 'n' the cities 'n' the small towns like . . . uh, like that one I grew up in. Friendly sort of place it was. Oh, we were rich, sure. But we didn't know it. Which is what made America great. And that's what's going to make America great again. 'Cause we're taking the government off your backs. This means that from now on each town can go out 'n' print its own money 'n' have its own army, navy, customs--even space program, if it wants. Like they got out there in Duluth. The sky's the limit for the little guy! 'Cause just as soon as Nicaragua says uncle, we're shutting down Washington. Oh, 'n' by the way, I can now like reveal to you that Disney has made us a very attractive offer for the whole city of Washington, D.C. Fact, even as I speak, we're in negotiations to sell it. Just think! Another Disney World right here on the Merrimac--or whatever that river over there is."

If, as you may have remarked, matters of plot and structure have thus far gone unmentioned, that's because there's little of either in Duluth; it's not so much a novel as a long succession of gags, asides and invectives. Duluth, the Minnesota city of the title, is indeed in Minnesota, but it borders Lake Erie on one side and Mexico on the other; it has a barrio of some 2 million persons in which the "Aztec Terrorists Society" is planning to overthrow gringo society with "Operation Montezuma"; its mayor, running for re-election, wants to set off "a small manageable race war" that will assure unanimous white support for his candidacy. This city called Duluth is, in other words, an American Everycity as imagined by Vidal, to whom "there is no lie so great that it will not be taken at face value in Duluth."

This is Vidal's politics; he offers an ample serving of it in Duluth, just as he did in Myra Breckenridge. He also offers some amusing divagations on the subject of illusion and reality as experienced in the age of television, and he conjures up several characters who, though fashioned entirely from cardboard, are nonetheless entertaining; a good word certainly must be said for Darlene Eck, the libidinous cop, and Rosemary Klein Kantor, who is not merely "queen of romance, Harlequin-style," but also "the acknowledged heiress--as well as plagiarist --of the late Georgette Heyer."

Duluth is Vidal's 20th novel; like most of its predecessors, it demonstrates nothing so much as that Vidal is an essayist, not a novelist. His grasp of fictive structure is insecure, his gift for characterization is exceedingly small, his tendency is to wander off on tangents. Yet he has a large and presumably appreciative audience for his fiction, and no doubt that audience will lap Duluth right up. This is, on the whole, a mystery.