The Old Man and Me — Elaine Dundy

The Old Man and Me is The Dud Avocado retold by a slightly older protagonist pursuing a slightly older target man. It has some of the same moments of impressive language use, as when Honey Flood—not her stage name, but apparently an invented one—says that:

Bollie was a sort of chain-talker, lighting one end of a conversation to another without letting the first go out.

The image fits, and with Bollie puffing on both conversations where most of us only have the capacity or manners for one, and the good sense to keep it that way. With that small detail, I feel like I’ve met Bollie, or if not him precisely, than someone much like him. Still, the same page has dated slang (what’s a “mizbag?”), and the dialog can be hard to follow at times. Perhaps that dialog is representative of Honey, another American in Europe whose interests are men, money, status, and fun (not necessarily in that order), ideally combined in the same man. Said man turns out to be, chiefly, C.D. McKee, a writer in a day when writers still had groupies and hadn’t been replaced by celebrities as objects of fixation.

Honey’s voice will make the novel—or not. More often it’s the former; she’s clever if irritating at times, and the banter between her and McKee usually works, although sometimes it feels obvious. Consider this exchange about a park, in which C.D. speaks first:

“Parks are for the poor. Alas, that they haven’t a chance to enjoy them. Only the very young and the time-wasters like us can.”
“That’s because you hide them so well. This beauty, for instance. How d’you expect them to find it. I wouldn’t if you hadn’t led me to it.”

It’s not hard to take the park as a metaphor for Honey’s growth as a person in dealing with C.D. The undercurrent of class, if not warfare, then consciousness, continues (“I had been a rich man’s darling, all right. A very rich man’s very darling”), but not to the point of annoyance. But it gets close enough to that state to warrant a mention; Honey isn’t as developed intellectually or socially as someone like Renee Feuer in The Mind-Body Problem, who’d catch the solipsism in comments like this:

Radiating joy, confidence, and anticipation [C.D.] shone like a beacon in contrast to the milling crowd: the careful ones checking and rechecking their tickets, luggage, and timetables; the frantic ones overburdened and rushing in all directions […]

My internal editor drew a line through “the milling crowd,” figuring that we’d understand the milling crowd through the image that follows it. And someone like Renee would catch herself and realize that others are probably having the same thoughts she is, as shown in this XKCD:

It’s the same comic I linked to in my post on Pages For You: narrators and characters who aren’t able to see themselves in the larger sense, or see themselves as other people might see them, become decreasingly satisfying over time, as one reads more novels. Being (or at least feeling) significantly smarter than the character about whom one is reading, without some significantly unusual formal feature to make up for it, makes for tedious reading. The Old Man and Me isn’t tedious, most of the time, and it’s refreshing to find female narrators who are willing to sleep around without shame and connive to get what they want: I’m not sure this is a feminist testament, but at least it makes for an amusing story with writing that keeps Honey from devolving into stereotype and the story from devolving into senescence.

The bottom line: Read The Dud Avocado. Then read The Mind-Body Problem. Still want more? Then find this quasi sequel, but your urge will probably have been satiated unless you’re an American going to Europe, in which case you might empathize with and want to understand those whose footsteps you follow in. Then you can view The Old Man and Me as a learning experience.

The Second Pass also recently wrote on the The Old Man and Me. It’s a blog that I find moving steadily higher in my “must reads.”

Links for May 12

  • Simon Lipskar, a literary agent whose assistant sent perhaps the nicest and most encouraging rejection letter I’ve ever received, recently gave an excellent interview, in which he most notably said, “Writers should write the books they love. That way, no matter what the market says, their time wasn’t wasted.” I agree, but it would also be nice if the market were interested. The theme of love and market is one you’ll hear more about shortly.

“The New Confessions” is my favorite of Mr. Boyd’s many fine novels, but I recommend all of them. His most recent, “Restless,” a historical spy story published last year, is intelligent and thrilling; its heroine is an old woman. “Any Human Heart,” perhaps Mr. Boyd’s most critically acclaimed novel, is also a fictional autobiography of an English adventurer not so different from John James Todd.

I’ve often wondered why Mr. Boyd hasn’t become a British literary star in America, the way Nick Hornby, Martin Amis and John Mortimer have. He’s as good a writer as any of them. Maybe there’s no rational explanation for why some great writers don’t win the commercial sweepstakes. Maybe it’s just luck.

As if that weren’t enough, she also says:

In my last column I asked for recommendations of chewy modern novels. One reader mentioned “The Echo Maker” by Richard Powers, which I agree is one of those rare books with a plot that races and a thoughtfulness that slows you down. Two other modern novels I found equally provocative were “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell and “Seven Types of Ambiguity” by Elliot Perlman. I have a friend who recently reread “Cloud Atlas.” She said it was even better the second time.

Hmmm, among that, Hugh MacLennan’s The Watch That Ends the Night, and rereading some Saul Bellow, I’m not sure where I’m going to find time in the next few weeks.

  • The Watch That Ends the Night?” you ask. Terry Teachout says:

At any rate I finally got around to reading The Watch That Ends the Night last week, and I was knocked flat by it, so much so that I had to ration the number of pages I allowed myself each day so that I wouldn’t be distracted from my deadlines. I intend at some point in the next couple of weeks to discuss it in the weekly book column that I write for Commentary’s Web site, so I won’t jump the gun here. Suffice it for the moment to say that I feel inclined to rank it alongside Peter de Vries’ The Blood of the Lamb, an equally ill-remembered novel of similar vintage and subject matter (both books have at their center a woman who is suffering from a fatal illness and are narrated by a man who loves her).

  • Razim questions why modern literature doesn’t appeal to him so much as the past and comes up with a lot of answers that sound, to my ears, vaguely sexist. A more probable answer is this: modern literature—meaning anything published after World War II—is still being sorted out as to what’s worth reading and what’s not, and the cacophony of popular literature has probably drowned out some of the avant garde that will one day be acknowledged as great.

In addition, I think tastes have also shifted and become more dispersed, meaning that multiple kinds of canons are being created, rather than the more singular, dominant kind of past. Finally, I’m not sure the demand shift Razim argues is enough to explain the changes in literature; even if women read most fiction, an absolute number of men read it sufficiently to create their own market. This goes back to the dispersion argument.

(Hat tip Tyler Cowen).

The Dud Avocado

The Dud Avocado is a sustaining delight, although some plot twists almost threw me off the imaginative train. Now, after the novel’s last page, they seem fitting, which I suppose is the mark of a good twist: you don’t like it or you find it implausible, but it comes to feel so organic that conceiving of the novel without the twist becomes impossible. Then again, even were the surprises unacceptable, I would still like The Dud Avocado for its language and, at times, innocent snark; one of my favorite lines I will repeat in conversation, modified to suit the circumstances: “We treat each other like a couple of minor United Nations officials, Bax and I. Very protocol, very wary.” With lines like that, what’s a little oddity in the plot?

There were a few other signs of stretching: one character underwent an almost spontaneously change, or so I thought, though in retrospect the transition was foreshadowed if I had cared enough to see—there’s a little bit of the mystery genre in every novel—and now I can see its importance for Sally’s development: she learned she can’t fully trust others, though this sets up an ending that can be interpreted several ways I will not reveal here, as it contributes to an ending as fitting and sparkling as the rest of the novel. Throughout it, you get some philosophy bound with humor—”I gave up wondering if anyone was ever going to understand me at all. If I was ever going to understand myself even.”—and bound with seeing Sally struggle, but not too hard, and not so much that you think she’s going to find herself six feet under. It would be no easier imagining disaster in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Holly Golightly is Sally’s most obvious literary kin, although I suspect The Dud Avocado is the better book (I say “suspect” because it’s been too long since I read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but remember it being considerably shallower than The Dud Avocado).

For one thing, Sally is more interesting and self-aware than most heroes, even as she tries at times to be cynical and tough and succeeds no better than she would trying to be the Queen of England. But she is not silly in a disreputable or trivial fashion. The book’s tone might make some readers think it trivial, but The Dud Avocado has much to say about how to grow up (with a sense that the world won’t end and you should feel free to explore) and how to love (with abandon, but not so much as to lost perspective or drown yourself in someone else). Life, Sally realizes, is hard, but not so hard that you should become hard in response, lest you lose what makes it worthwhile, and Sally says, “now the whole thing seemed really more comic than tragic. I found I was almost enjoying myself.”

I feel the same way about reading and many things besides.

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