|Jim McDermott’s portrait of Elaine Dundy.|
I had high hopes of The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy, which I bought because it is a Virago Modern Classic, and because the blurb on the back made it sound so enticing:
Sally Jay Gorce, is a woman with a mission. It’s the 1950s, she’s young, she’s in Paris, she’s dyed her hair pink, she’s wearing an evening dress at eleven o’clock in the morning, and she’s seldom had more fun. Having made a vow to go native in a way the natives never had the stamina for, she’s busy getting drunk, having affairs, losing money, losing jewellery, and losing God knows what.
And the opening was promising…
It was a hot, peaceful optimistic sort of day in September. It was about eleven in the morning I remember and I was drifting down the Boulevard St. Michel thoughts rising in my head like little puffs of smoke when suddenly a voice bellowed into my ear …
But thereafter I was disappointed: the book failed to please me, and I’m not quite sure why. It’s well written, the characters are well drawn, and I didn’t hate it. To be honest I don’t think I could even say I disliked it – it didn’t evoke any strong emotions in me. It’s just not my sort of book I guess, and I wouldn’t read it again.
It is, as I’m sure most people know, a classic rites of passage book written by Elaine Dundy, an American actress who married British theatre critic Ken Tynan. It is supposed to be based on Dundy’s own experiences living in Paris (before she met Tynan), but she said: “When I got stuck, I would say to myself, ‘What would I not do?’ and then I would have Sally Jay do it, and I would be off again.”
Sally Jay (generally known as Gorce) is a serial runaway, who is in Paris thanks to her Uncle Roger. When she was 13 he promised her two years of freedom once she has graduated from college – providing she doesn’t run away again. He’ll pay her a monthly allowance, and she can go anywhere she likes, and do anything she likes.
At that point what she wants is to stay out as late as she likes, and eat whatever she likes any time she wants. And she doesn’t want to be introduced to all the mothers and fathers and brothers of the girls at school. She doesn’t want to meet anyone she’s been introduced to. She wants to meet all the other people and do exciting things and sharpen her wits…
So now Sally Jay, an actress, is in Paris, grabbing every new experience she can. She has a lover, an Italian diplomat named Teddy (they met when she stepped out in front of his car) who takes her to the Ritz, and a circle of oddball acquaintances, who all seem to be outsiders, on the edge of society. They’re not exactly down and outs, but they live a hand to mouth existence. Then there’s Larry Keevil, who was on a drama course with Sally Jay back home in America, and she meets him again and falls in love. But Larry turns out to be very nasty indeed…
The novel rushes along from one episode to another, and there’s a host of entertaining characters to accompany our zany heroine, and on the surface everything is very light and frothy, and often very funny. But there are darker undertones, and some scenes are quite disturbing.
At times the book, written in 1958, reminded me of JD Salinger’s ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, which was published seven years earlier – something to do with the tone perhaps, or the style, or the portrayal of disaffected youth with its hatred of anything phony. For all her outrageous behaviour Sally Jay, like Holden Caulfield, is something of innocent and, like him, she doesn’t really grow or learn from her experiences. She has no thought for the future, and lives for the moment. She’s very bright, and despite the kooky, confident, cynical persona she’s created for herself she’s oddly passive – things happen to her, and she accepts the situation, and goes with the flow, rarely making decisions or initiating action.
The period is wrong, but she could almost be a younger version of a Jean Rhys heroine, before life has saddened her and the promise of good times ahead has disappeared: think of Sasha in ‘Good Morning’, Midnight. Rhys is far bleaker and grittier, but Dundy’s Paris carries the same sense of seediness and failure, despite the lightness and humour.
And although the ending ought to be described as happy, I can’t for a moment imagine it will be. Sally Jay doesn’t strike me as being a happy-after-person. Each time she meets a new man, or a new situation, she thinks ‘this is it’. But it never lasts. Whatever she does, she never quite fits in, and things never quite work out. There’s a passage early on the book where Sally Jay says:
I was still wearing the evening dress I had in when I’d met Larry that morning, and the funny thing about was that, even though twelve hours had elapsed since then, it still wasn’t particularly appropriate. I mean, I really felt I could expect it to be correct attire at some point of the day – like a watch that has stopped, eventually just happening to have its hands at the right time.
Somehow I felt that symbolised her life, and she’s never going to be correct, or happy, or satisfied.