Sunday, March 16, 2008

Review: The Portable Dorothy Parker

The Portable Dorothy Parker with an introduction by Marion Meade. New York: The Penguin Group, 2006. 656 pages.

As I read The Portable Dorothy Parker, I thought of the short stories of John Cheever. Although many of their stories are set in about the same boozy time period, Cheever's focus is often the suburban family man who has everything the successful American male should—and who still finds that life is elusive, even wanting and empty. Parker's tales are primarily of the urban woman, some rich, some poor, rarely satisfied, never happy. In some ways, Cheever's man and Parker's woman live in the same void, although not at the same comfort level.

In Parker's world, as in Cheever's, the sexes seem to be at cross purposes, unable to communicate openly and hoping to hint their way to understanding. When the girl in "The Sexes" says, "There isn't a thing on earth the matter. I don't know what you mean," the young man, along with the reader, must be able to guess at the nature of the conversation that is about to follow and its inevitable outcome—including the final, "I was not sore! What on earth made you think I was?" Parker's keen ear and sense of timing make even the dated dialogue and references relevant today.

"Lady with a Lamp" requires only monologue to reveal the actions, sufferings, and feelings of the silent Mona, whose garrulous friend observes her every move and expression and yet is oblivious to the depth of Mona's pain.

In many stories, Parker relies on monologue and dialogue to reveal the truth underneath the words, which mean nothing. In "Arrangement in Black and White," the more the "woman with pink velvet poppies" asserts her colorblindness, the deeper her racism is revealed to be. She can say sincerely both, "You know, so many colored people, you give them an inch, and they walk all over you," followed by, "I haven't any feelings at all because he's a colored man" without seeing any hypocrisy.

For "Big Blonde," perhaps Parker's best-known story, she uses a narrative approach. Like Hazel Morse, the reader becomes lost in an ill-defined haze of men and alcohol. "She was always pleased to have him come and never sorry to see him go" sums up Hazel's meaningless relationships and life. Parker captures the American obsession with the show of happiness and the burying of genuine emotions in the constant exhortations to "slip us a little smile"—an effort that requires alcohol to sustain. Even the maid responds to Hazel's suicide attempt with, "You cheer up, now."

In some ways, the title character of "Mr. Durant" evokes Cheever. An insignificant and complaisant business- and family man leads a double life for which he pays no consequences. Women are to be used until they threaten the security and comfort of his position, yet his actions toward the stray dog his children find reveal that he sees himself as the victim. His "peace with the world" is more important than anything, including people.

Parker is a literal writer who seems to avoid the type of symbolism that makes Cheever's "The Swimmer" so powerful. This lack of literary and psychological stretching may have kept her from achieving her dream—writing a novel, which she believed was necessary for a writer to be taken seriously by both the literary establishment and the reading public. Her failure did not prevent her from being a harsh critic, and The Portable Dorothy Parker includes rather flippant dismissals of novels by Theodore Dreiser, Booth Tarkington, and others.

Parker despises whimsy and fantasy, including the works of J. M. ("Never-Grow-Up") Barrie and A. A. Milne ("And it is that word, 'hummy,' my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader Fwowed up"). One wonders what she thought of the more adult efforts of her British contemporary, J. R. R. Tolkien.

If Parker cannot say anything positive about another writer's work, however, she sarcastically praises the book itself. ". . . it is brought out by the Grove Press in a most pleasing form—a small book with excellent print and paper, and hard covers, though not of cloth."

Parker's poetry reflects her no-nonsense, stark view of love and life (and death); there's little romanticism here. "Unfortunate Coincidence" ("Lady, make a note of this:/One of you is lying") is compact blend of eroticism and cynicism; "Faute de Mieux" reveals a rare wistfulness ("I never said they feed my heart"); and "Fighting Words" ("But say my verses do not scan,/And I get me another man!") shows what she believes her priorities to be, although Enough Rope's many suicidal and death-wish poems lead the reader to another conclusion. While Parker often stretches a rhyme, rhythm, or literary device to the breaking point, her verse is often painfully personal and evocative.

Already hefty, Dorothy Parker is made less portable by the addition of "A Dorothy Parker Sampler," random ephemera that includes letters. Most of these are not highlights of the Parker canon and could have been left out. The one exception is a long letter to Robert Benchley, written from Switzerland. Parker reveals heartfelt compassion for her friends and their sick children as well as her own anguish over a dead love affair ("I honestly don't know where John leaves off and I begin."). It's a rare glimpse into Parker's heart that isn't obscured by sarcasm and wit.

Parker's straightforward, surface style can detract from the darkness of her subject matter. As Marion Meade notes, Parker had a "capacity for listening and watching with amazing clarity." If only Parker had been willing to dig a little deeper, she might be remembered as a successful novelist rather than as a wit—a label she despised.

Sunday, 16 March 2008.
© 2008 by Diane L. Schirf.

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