Thursday, September 5, 2013

Innocence Abroad: Elaine Dundy's The Dud Avocado

If I’d tried to find a book about Paris as far removed from Jacques Yonnet’s Rue des Maléfices as possible, I don’t think I could have succeeded more thoroughly than with Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, Where Yonnet’s peril-filled tales of the Occupation, gallows humor, and intimate, esoteric knowledge of city make for a gripping and penetrating work, all shadows and mystery, Dundy’s book, written a mere four years after Yonnet’s in 1958, is a soufflé baked of “gaiety, laughter, song-and-dance, shoes in the air.” The story of Sally Jay Gorce, an ex-pat 21-year-old American sowing her wild oats and aspiring to be an actress in the City of Light, The Dud Avocado evinces almost zero curiosity about Paris’ old places and traditions. Its characters – mostly other young ex-pats – seem to limit their interests to Paris’ bars and nightclubs and to one another, capable perhaps of naming the bartender at the Select, but unlikely to know the Conciergerie or the apartments of Napoleon III.

A few pages into The Dud Avocado I began to suspect that the reliably good taste of New York Review Books had suffered a hiccup. But I’m glad I persisted; despite Dundy’s book being little more than a bagatelle on a topic (young Americans in Paris) for which I have little interest, Gorce (her name borrowed from a James Thurber story) is a surprisingly appealing young narrator, wise beyond her years, with a sharp wit and sharp tongue. It’s also one of those books in which one’s pleasure derives in part from seeing the writing, from start to finish, become better and better before one’s eyes. It’s also a very funny book.

Another reason Dundy’s novel kept my interest even after taking the stage from as riveting a work as Rue des Maléfices is that it makes no pretense to being about Paris. It does not err where many subsequent tales of Americans in Paris do, by tediously milking cultural differences or rhapsodizing about the place as though no American had previously been there. For Sally Jay Gorce, whatever else Paris may be is secondary to its function as a liberating space to facilitate her fierce drive to live fully and escape her provincial, privileged, suffocating youth. And while most who come to Paris from other shores have neither the means nor the blitheness of Sally Jay Gorce, few possess her determination, social insight, and humor – which as Gorce notes about one of her impecunious ex-pat paramours, is a resource of immense benefit even to those engaged in the “epic battle…versus No Means Of Support.”  Yes, she is but another young American trying out her wings in Europe’s capital, motivated by a sentiment that “The world is wide, wide, wide, and I am young, young, young, and we’re all going to live forever!” But she’s also unusually self-aware, recognizing that her time there, a gift from a rich uncle, is not only an irretrievably precious quantity of youth but also a flight from herself - the latest in a series of escapes that began at age 13, when, like Maggie in The Mill on the Floss running off to join the gypsies, Gorce let out for the American West hoping to reach Mexico and become a bullfighter.

If Paris comes off in The Dud Avocado as little more than a place for Gorce to stretch her wings, the reward is a focused study of Gorce herself. Her wild explorations are not, despite her search for “a good time,” all air and light. Some of her fellow ex-pats may lead lives as airy as meringue:

Here is the story of Bax’s life: he was born in Canada. He was raised in Canada. He went to Toronto University and has never been out of Canada before. He doesn’t know what he wants to do, but would like it to be something artistic.

By contrast, in Gorce’s fight for her time in the sun, she exposes just enough of the seamy side of the city to give The Dud Avocado some unexpected gravitas. She sees herself as a member of “Les Compliqués: Los Complicados: that’s the only club I’ll ever belong to – though not by choice. I may not have been born into it, but I became a member at a very early age. A life-member.” Her complications largely pertain to entanglements with men, including a young French punk, a married Italian, an impoverished American painter, and her closest companion, an American theater director a bit more louche than he at first appears. There’s a price to pay for Gorce’s risk-taking and adventuring, but she’s an not about to let herself be impeded by any of the characters with whom she gets involved. And unlike her companions content to drift along in their European adventures, Gorce is acutely aware that youth doesn’t last:

What happens when your curiosity just suddenly gives out? When the will and the energy stop and it all seems so once-over-again? What’s going to happen five years from now, when I wake up in the night…take a deep breath to start all over again, and find that I’ve no breath left? When I start running again and find I can’t even put one foot in front of the other? …I’ll be cooked. If I don’t stop it.

If The Dud Avocado offers few surprises and not a lot of depth, it is nonetheless a joy to read, with some unforgettable “bon mots” and, in Sally Jay Gorce, a winning main character who, in her unquenchable thirst to live life to its utmost, comes off as inspiring – even for an innocent American youth in Paris. Towards the novel’s end, Gorce recounts her bullfighter escapade and the understanding young woman at Traveler’s Aid who, instead of calling the police, had given Gorce some money and encouragement, telling the 13-year-old,  “Good luck to you. You are running for my life.” Faulting The Dud Avocado for being what it is not, for its not being Rue des Maléfices, would be to miss the point. The ardor of Sally Jay Gorce’s indomitable spirit and wit, her insistence on staking her claim to youth, adventure, and uncontainable exuberance, can’t help but make a reader admire that fiercely burning flame. There’s enough energy in Gorce’s life to help power more than a few others.


  1. Outstanding commentary.

    This sounds really good in so many ways. As you allude to, the American in Paris is such a popular literary subject. I am beginning to ponder the reasons for such. Though I think that this topic has yielded fruitful results, it is good to know that this one avoids the same trod upon ground already covered by others.

    PS - My wife - Whose family is from Paris, has ordered Rue des Maléfices. I will let you know what she thinks.

  2. Brian: I did enjoy this quite a lot, especially Dundy's sharp sense of humor (clearly she was a big fan of James Thurber).

    Glad to hear that Rue de Maléfices is on its way. I look forward to reading about how your wife's responses to it.

  3. I read Dundy a few years ago and I remember it pretty much as you describe it: the story's thin, but the narrator has so much verve that the fortunes of her verve become the point.

  4. interesting that you mention the 'hiccup' because I've wondered the same thing--which is why I haven't read this. Thanks for the review.

  5. Fabulous stuff, a very fitting review that captures the lightness, sharpness and verve of Dundy's novel. (It's an interesting combination, don't you think?) I completely agree with you on the writing - it just gets better and better. In fact, I had to stop myself from stuffing my own mini review full of quotes from Sally Jay. There's a wonderful one from the final section of the novel where she's describing dry martinis, 'great wing-shaped glasses of perfumed fire, tangy as the early morning air'. How marvellous is that? And I love the idea that the book was inspired by some of Dundy's own experiences in life - it makes me wonder which bits are *real* and which are imaginary.

    Have you read the other Dundy published by NYRB, The Old Man and Me? I think it's set in London, a feature that really appeals to me.