Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

I remember all this part so very clearly. And I remember a little later wondering why things always turn out to be diametrically opposed to what you expect them to be. It's no good even trying to predict what the opposite will be because it always fools you and turns out to be the opposite of that, if you see what I mean. If you think this is geometrically impossible all I can say is that you don't know my life. 
On the surface, Sally Jay Gorce sounds terrible: she roams around Paris on her uncle's dime, she has no real job, and she's on a quest to "find herself." My least favorite collection of things. But, somehow, she is sharp, funny, and one of the more endearing narrators I've found in a long time. In his review, Christopher likened her to Holden Caufield; I would add in Holly Golightly to explain the flighty behavior and Eloise for being queen of her castle and a propensity for being nosy.

Sally Jay's nicknames for the characters who populate her world are one of my favorite (and most Holden-esque) aspects of her prose. There's a "lazy, devastatingly handsome Princeton boy who owned a Glider and said mostly nothing but 'Zop, zop'" who is known exclusively as Zop Zop from that point forward, two men with beards known as Beard Boring and Beard Bubbly, and a bullfighter she dubs "El Wheero" His naming made me giggle: "Manuel Sanchez, 'El Wheero' (that may not be spelled right; it's the first time I've tried)." She's funny and sarcastic and honest and vulnerable all at once.

Paris is beautifully described, and Dundy pairs the longing way that expats, on the cusp of being insiders, look at Paris with Sally Jay's casual wit to great effect:
The interior of the café, a room of goodish size, was designed to satisfy every possible café desire. The counter, with its long brass foot-rail for bar-drinkers, was always propped up, even at this time of evening, by an exceedingly pickled Englishman in the company of his exceedingly sober dog. Along the walls ran a banquette upholstered in very old plush, ideal for  eavesdropping, or reading the evening papers, while the tables, generally occupied by rowdy groups such as the Hard Core, were placed in the center of the room, thus allowing breathing space for the other customers. At one point the room took a sudden L turn, and the six or seven booths built into this partition isolated the serious lovers and chess players from the rest of us. A beautiful, twilight neon tubing shed its mellow glow on the dim, dirty mosaic-tiled floor and flickered over the rainbow-hued coiffures of the women, as many-colored as the coats they sat in, which were made of the skins of some raffish, exotic creatures, totally unknown outside the city limits. On the banquettes a lot of American spinsters sat together, talking clearly and precisely of their travels, or else read and smoked alone while having to steel pots of un-American tea. It always made me sad to see that there were so many unmarried women in the world--sadder still to realize that they were largely unseen because there were so few public places they dared brave without a sense of strain.
I started typing that paragraph, fully intending to stop after the dog sentence, and had to keep going because each sentence seemed more worth including that the last. And the end! This turn from dry humor to serious introspection happens over and over in The Dud Avocado, and it's what makes Sally Jay so appealing.

Later in the novel, Dundy switches over to journal entries, giving us a more internal, more telegraphic version of Sally Jay that is even funnier and more endearing (and occasionally came off sounding like Trump tweets). A couple of my favorites:
"Have been watching our house chat for some days now, a real phony if I ever saw one."
"Hate birds. Hate cats too. Wish every bird would meet every cat and then every cat meet every dog. Don't like dogs much, either."
The book takes a satisfyingly dark turn at the end, saving it from being a rich girls travel log, and the last page is delightfully weird. Overall, I loved it. Great recommendation, Chris!