Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 520
“Duel” is based on a simple but provocative premise: What if an ordinary man, a salesperson, were driving along a highway minding his own business when a truck driver, for no discernible reason, suddenly challenged him to a duel of machines? The task the author poses for himself is to...
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“Duel” is based on a simple but provocative premise: What if an ordinary man, a salesperson, were driving along a highway minding his own business when a truck driver, for no discernible reason, suddenly challenged him to a duel of machines? The task the author poses for himself is to develop fully the potential of this premise, to dramatize its limited but exciting and suspenseful narrative possibilities.
Heading west on a two-lane highway through the mountains, Mann, a middle-aged traveling salesperson, sees very few vehicles. Because he must maintain his routine speed of fifty-five miles per hour if he is to keep his appointment in San Francisco, he casually passes a truck that is pulling a gasoline trailer. This action somehow sets off a hostile response in the faceless truck driver. The truck passes him, Mann passes the truck, it passes him again, and he begins to realize that an unusual situation has developed, one the truck driver intends to control. An intricate series of actions and reactions ensues, with Mann’s own emotions escalating from bewilderment to mild irritation to ordinary anger to mortal fear to combative rage.
There are three major turning points in the narrative. As he climbs a steep grade, Mann is able to pass the truck, but he blares his horn derisively. Soothed by a reverie about his wife and children, with music on the car radio as background, he settles into the delusion that the incident is over. However, on the steep, curving downgrade, the ugly, square truck tries to ram him from behind, and Mann realizes that the driver intends to kill him.
The second turning point comes when Mann decides to evade the truck by pulling over into the lot in front of Chuck’s Cafe, and to placate the driver, who may or may not have entered the café while Mann was trying to calm himself with rationalizations in the rest room. Back on the highway, however, the truck resumes its deadly game, stopping and starting and blocking the highway in response to Mann’s evasive maneuvers.
Mann’s impulsive decision to outrun the truck and his indulgent joy in the race is the third turning point. In this pastoral setting, he is forced to accept the fact that he cannot withdraw from this duel. Two emotions new to his experience—uncontrollable rage and terror of imminent death—enable him to draw on resources that he had not known he had. His overheated car having barely made it to the crest of a steep grade ahead of the truck, he must elude his opponent on the steep downgrade. When the motor fails, he makes a sudden turn onto a side road, timed so that if the truck driver surrenders to an instinct to follow, he will lose control. When the truck disappears from his rearview mirror, Mann stops, gets out of his car, and walks back down the road just in time to see the truck crash in a ravine and explode. Mann looks down, too stunned to feel anything. Then he cries exultantly, like a beast over his defeated prey.