Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Not a dud at all

I read on About Last Night that Elaine Dundy, author and ex-wife of Kenneth Tynan, has died. It's thanks to Terry's blog that I first heard about Ms. Dundy and her novel The Dud Avocado--last spring, when I was still living in Paris, Terry announced that he had written the introduction for New York Review Books' new edition. Instantly, I knew I had to read it: a 1950s comic novel about a 21-year-old American girl and her misadventures in Paris? Sign me up! But I didn't get around to reading it till spring break this year, and never got around to blogging about it

The Dud Avocado and its narrator, Sally Jay Gorce, are charming from the first scene, which has Sally Jay wandering down the Boul' Mich' at eleven o'clock in the morning wearing an evening gown (since all her other clothes are dirty), running into an old friend from back home, and deciding she's in love with him--so how can she get out of her current affair with a suave middle-aged Italian? (When I was in Paris I considered the Boul' Mich' my stomping grounds too, and Sally Jay's Montparnasse lodgings are very close to the building where I had my classes. Yes, I read The Dud Avocado with my Paris map by my side.)

Sally Jay's time in France is filled with too many men, too much alcohol, too many late nights, and too many misadventures--especially when she and some friends decamp on a vacation to the South of France and get involved with a movie crew. All this is paid for by an indulgent uncle who wants Sally Jay to enjoy her wild oats. When she ends up in jail one night, she takes it with equanimity: "Uncle Roger, I thought, you can't say I'm not trying."

As in many comic novels, the plot is cheerfully preposterous: characters reappear at unexpected times and the denouement has a fairy-tale quality. So the book really sustains itself on the strength of Sally Jay's voice. Once again I am across the country from the book I'm writing about, so I can't describe it or quote from it as much as I'd like. Still, Sally Jay's most important quality is that she is very knowing and very innocent at the same time. Her observations of other characters' behavior are often dead-on and funny, yet she can't stop herself from making mistakes that are obvious to the reader, or from having an inflated view of herself. (There's a moment when she's sunburned and her hair is green from too much hair-dye and sun-bleaching, and she thinks she's the most ravishing creature alive.)

But what's interesting is that the novel also reads like an early critique of the "hook-up" culture. Toward the end, Sally Jay becomes disillusioned, wondering what is the point of looking attractive and flirting and having quick failed love affairs, and how much longer she can go on doing this. So, while the events of the denouement are not really believable, Sally Jay's growth as a character feels all too true. And that's a difficult thing to pull off in a comic novel--to have your charmingly madcap heroine wonder "Is that all there is?" and return to the States, sadder but wiser.

R.I.P. Elaine Dundy. The Sally Jays of this world, the American girls dashing around Paris, will live on after you.

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