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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 756

Matheson is an interesting example of the commercial writer who is so in command of his craft that he achieves, in this profound allegory, through the controlled use of various techniques and a style almost perfectly suited to it, a work of art.

Except for a few lapses, the narrative...

(The entire section contains 756 words.)

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Matheson is an interesting example of the commercial writer who is so in command of his craft that he achieves, in this profound allegory, through the controlled use of various techniques and a style almost perfectly suited to it, a work of art.

Except for a few lapses, the narrative point of view is third-person, central intelligence. Serviceable phrases such as “Mann’s expression froze in terror,” “with haunted eyes,” and “his face a mask of animosity” violate that point of view by giving the reader external views of Mann, through whose perceptions all elements of the story are otherwise centralized. Perhaps Matheson the screenwriter intruded at these points; “Duel” appeared in Playboy only months before Matheson’s own adaptation, directed by then novice Steven Spielberg, showed up on television, becoming a cinematic as well as a literary classic. The very mechanics of the situation as it develops help Matheson to control his basically commercial-literary style, which now and then produces such lines as “He eyed the truck with cursory disapproval.” Given the already well-controlled Mann point of view and the ongoing context of terror, it is not necessary to follow “He’s going to kill me” with “Mann thought, horrified.”

Readers experience Matheson’s simple, precise, fast-paced plot structure as if they were being carried forward, simultaneously terrified and exhilarated, inside a swift, smooth-running machine. Readers intimately share Mann’s emotional, imaginative, and intellectual reactions as they escalate from mild irritation to sheer terror to instinctive murderous rage. Readers experience a process in which an ironic reversal turns Mann-the-victim into Mann-the-victor.

To enhance Mann’s reactions to the aggressive behavior of the truck driver, Matheson uses vivid descriptive detail, imagery, and the devices of parallel and contrast. “Sunlight on his arm and lap” is a detail that enables the reader to drift with Mann into reverie. Later, Mann sees “the back of the truck driver’s left hand on the steering wheel,” a detail that helps make the driver seem mysterious. That Mann can see only the lower half of the square radiator grill focuses his sense of the menace rushing after him. Matheson makes Mann’s response to everything that he sees along the highway very lively: “Who the hell is Will Jasper,” he wonders, looking at the name painted on a rock. “What would he think of this situation?” The author offers a grotesquely comic parallel to the deadly serious situation when Mann notices the “Night Crawlers—Bait” sign and thinks of monster films. More effective as contrasts are Mann’s responses to the music on his car radio and to the pastoral scenery framing the highway. However, music finally lacks the power to soothe the savage instincts provoked in his breast, and scenery as relief from terror becomes an irritant, a mocking contrast to his perilous predicament.

Another enhancement of Mann’s basic predicament is the sense of isolation that Matheson creates. At the start, and now and then throughout, Mann notices that few cars are on the highway. Even the drivers in Chuck’s Cafe are shadowy figures. He feels the driver has isolated him from all other possibilities for this duel. Imagining his wife at the supermarket performing her domestic chores only makes his isolation more intense. When Mann sees two lovers parked in a car, not even noticing him as he passes, the reader shares his poignant isolation. At the sight of a pet cemetery, he wisecracks, but the sight later of flowers and a “Funeral” sign makes him imagine the final isolation—his own death.

By endowing all elements with a sense of immediacy, Matheson enables the reader to follow even Mann’s developing, ambivalent meditations with no lag in pace. For example, Mann draws on his lifelong preconception that truckers are cautious; then he decides that this driver must be an independent who lives by his own rules; finally, he will see that the man is lawless. Mann’s interrogation of aspects of the mystery, as when he is in Chuck’s Cafe, enhances the reader’s enjoyment of the fast-paced sequence of actions. There is a rare congruity between the character’s questions and the reader’s as both try to understand why, in this case, the driver behaves so irrationally. As the truck driver manipulates Mann’s behavior, the writer manipulates the reader’s responses. “Duel” is an unusually clear demonstration of how, in many effective stories, the main elements become a metaphor of the storytelling process itself—of the dynamics of the writer-reader relationship.

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