Dupont Circle is looking a little rough these days. It seems that ill-mannered powers-that-be have chosen this summer as the appropriate season in which to give the neighborhood’s crown jewel, the Admiral Du Pont fountain, a face-lift. And although the proud chalice could certainly use some reconstructive surgery, did they really have to break out the sculpting knife now?
As construction workers in yellow hardhats crawl over the looming landmark, the sparkling water that normally spills from the monument’s lip has been replaced with sun-dappled billows of dust. Lumbering cement mixers on the periphery are tearing up the lawns that surround the fountain, and the resultant men-at-work detritus has made the area resemble the town dump. Out of habit, a scattering of faithful continue to appear on the benches to read their newspapers with one eye and watch all the pretty people stroll by with the other, and the speed-chess masters on the outer ring’s east side have carried on as if nothing were awry. But still, the poorly timed revitalization remains an irritating distraction. A sign has been posted”CAUTION: Renovation in Progress. Maintenance Helps Preserve Our Parks”to appease the perturbed, but let’s be honest: During the most wonderful time of the year in the nation’s capital, Dupont Circle looks like shit.
If you want to witness the once-proud fountain in a less grimy aspectin fact, in an aspect that borders on the downright radiantthen Paul Kafka-Gibbons has attempted to snap just the picture postcard for you. In his new novel, Dupont Circle, the Massachusetts author sets an altogether lame soap opera about a sprawling patrician familyrich, white, heroically liberalsmack dab in the middle of D.C.’s prettiest neighborhood. If the community has its faults (like, say, limited curbside parking or the rampant smash-and-grabs or the lack of a decent bagel shop or…), the gushing Kafka-Gibbons and his goody-goody characters are blind to them. As far as everyone here is concerned, Dupont Circle is a utopiaat the very least.
Jon’s theory that Dupont Circle is a paradise in the heart of the city and the nation goes this way: In Dupont Circle poor meets rich, old meets young, gay meets straight, native meets new arrival, and the peoples, styles, and languages all squish together to form America. Love begins here during morning rush hour with a glance. At midday, political and religious evangelists stop passersby with a few words, a petition, a holy book. In the afternoon, solo figures pursue venture capital and real estate deals using tiny phones. In the evening, dogs approach or snub one another. People find good food nearby, designer and regular ice cream, coffee simple or embellished, newsstands, movie theaters with smallish screens. All of this, in Jon’s eyes, is persuasive.
(“Smallish screens”? The side of my toaster would be a better place to show a movie than those peep-show booths at the local cineplex. But I digress.) Kafka-Gibbons’ sweet infatuation with the ‘hood wouldn’t seem as laughably naive if the characters he populates it with weren’t so cardboard and improbable (a perfectly beautiful gay couple adopting perfectly precocious children, a doddering old judge having a complication-free relationship with a sexy law student several decades his junior). Not that the author ever gives his people much temptation or confrontation to consider: Dupont Circle is cluttered with meandering tension-free plotlines, and the book ultimately reads like a lame pilot for a major-network serial, in which lots of done-that drama is set in motionbut you’ll have to tune in next book to see what happens.
The novel’s chief hero (one of many heroes; there are no villains to be found here) is widower Bailey Allard, a District Court of Appeals judge living out his golden years in the creaky family mansion and desperate for a housemate. Enter heroine Louisa Robbins, a George Washington law student who answers Bailey’s roommate-wanted ad andbefore you can say “Metamucil”falls for the grumpy old man. The reader is never given a reason why the suddenly smitten Louisa would see anything but ear hair when she gazes at the judgeperhaps it’s the fact that she’s living rent-freebut she nevertheless needs medical assistance whenever Bailey even talks to another woman: “Suddenly Louisa feels something give right in the middle of her person, right where the important organs are. Tears spring to her eyes. Her breath catches on the way out, then rushes back in.” (The fact that Kafka-Gibbons has no idea how to write about women is made only slightly less bothersome by the fact that he has no idea how to write about men, either.)
Anyway, Bailey’s gay son, Jonathan, who lives with novelist Peterand with whom he raises the young children of his bipolar sister (don’t ask)is bothered by his father’s May-December affair but decides Bailey’s a helluva pop after all when the judge is assigned to hear a landmark civil liberties case: Two men legally married in New Mexico (don’t ask) are denied marital status in D.C., and it’s up to Bailey to make sure wrongs are righted. The issue is certainly both relevant and, in fiction terms, potentially juicy, but Kafka-Gibbons neglects to muster any pointed social commentary and is instead much more concerned with what it looks like when an old dude and a nubile law groupie do the nasty.
Kafka-Gibbons’ prose is all but flourish-free, and for a novel billed on the dust jacket as a “vivacious comedy,” it’s not funny at all. Dupont Circle runs a quick-paced 248 pages, but the number of characters haphazardly introduced is positively Dickensian; unfortunately, seeing as how everyone except Bailey, Louisa, Jonathan, and Peter are never more than names on a page, it’s pretty much impossible to keep up with who’s who. Making matters even more awkward, the author lazily tosses in random references to such D.C. attractions as the Uptown and Politics & Prose, but his in-the-know attempts ring false; in one case, Bailey enjoys a nice leisurely night of jazz at…the Black Cat.
Despite all the miscues and mundanities, however, a few lusty Dynasty-style twistsor any twists at all, for that matterthrown into the mix might have made the book, at least locally, a benign guilty pleasure. Dupont Circle as paradise is certainly a lovely thought. And it’s swell to at least read about our spectacular fountain in proper working order. But in Kafka-Gibbons’ hands, such a perfect world only makes for boring fiction and, if landlords start believing this nonsense, higher rent. CP