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Elaine Dundy Biography

london life york sally

Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 1927. Education: Sweet Briar College, Virginia. Career: Actress; worked for the BBC, London; directed the Winter Workshop of the Berkshire Festival; also journalist. Agent: Andrew Hewson, John Johnson Ltd., 45-47 Clerkenwell Green, London EC1R 0HT, England.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

The Dud Avocado. London, Gollancz, and New York, Dutton, 1958.

The Old Man and Me. London, Gollancz, and New York, Dutton, 1964.

The Injured Party. London, Joseph, 1974.

Uncollected Short Stories

"The Sound of a Marriage," in Queen (London), 1965.

"Death in the Country," in Vogue (New York), 1974.

Plays

My Place (produced London, 1962). London, Gollancz, 1962; NewYork, French, 1963.

Death in the Country, and The Drowning (produced New York, 1976).

Screenplay:

Life Sign, 1975.

Other

Finch, Bloody Finch. London, Joseph, and New York, Holt Rinehart, 1980.

Elvis and Gladys: The Genesis of the King. New York, Macmillan, and London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1985.

Ferriday, Louisiana. New York, Fine, 1990.

* * *

In The Dud Avocado and The Old Man and Me, Elaine Dundy employs first-person, reflective narrators who self-consciously and self-indulgently record and evaluate their experiences in Paris and Soho. The narrators relate their stories in a candid, energetic, witty style, spiced with parenthetical revelations, word association games, and sensory impressions. Their language is often the jargon of the Beat-hipster; audacious, flippant, nervous, saucy. Their tone is the good-humored self-mockery of the cocktail party confession, the stage whisper, the open diary. The narrators are deliberate storytellers, replaying moments from their pasts, exposing their naivety and limitations, and benefiting from hindsight.

Sally Jay in The Dud Avocado is the contemporary American innocent abroad, superficially hip to the decadent Left Bank and "running for her life." Caught in the ambiguity between naivety and sophistication, she is in pursuit of "freedom" and the ability "to be so sharp that I'll always be able to guess right … on the wing." She expends her time and innocence in a disorganized, impulsive debauch with the avant-garde of Paris.

Through a series of wrong guesses, she eventually is schooled in the ways of the world. The glamorous, daring, free world of Paris is revealed as pretentious, opportunistic, grotesque. Her romantic vision of the rebellious life is destroyed when she understands that her would-be lover is a pimp and that her life in Paris has exposed her to "too much prostitution." She declares herself a dud avocado—a seed without life potential.

In flight to Hollywood, the narrator confronts her runaway life strategy and determines that some "unrunning" is called for to "[lay] the ghost once and for all." She seeks out the role of librarian and schools herself in cynicism until she recognizes the life which she wishes to embrace. Giddy with optimism, she accepts the love and marriage proposal of a famous photographer and embarks on a new life with "an entirely new passport," the new self emerging from the old like the growth of an avocado seedling from the stone of the old fruit: "It's zymotic!" The narrator survives her initiation experience ready to "Make voyages. Attempt them. That's all there is."

Betsy Lou in The Old Man and Me is older and more experienced than Sally Jay, but like Sally Jay, she is on a quest which leads to greater self-knowledge. Motivated by puerile revenge, she journeys to London to recover her "stolen" inheritance from C.D. McKee. As his unknown heir, she plans to hasten the recovery of her money by any means necessary—lying, cheating, masquerading, or attempting murder. She partially achieves her declared end, and in the process realizes her injustice to those in her past, the reasons for the loss of her father's love, and her love for C.D. despite his age and possession of her money. Thus she corrects her mistaken view of her past and sees the futility of trying to salve emotional loss with money.

Betsy Lou's relationship to C.D. is never linear and controllable. The very complexity of the relationship betrays her ambiguity over her past, her present motives, and her unconscious needs. She loves/hates him, recognizes that he is/is not a father figure, accepts/rejects him as teacher, is repulsed/excited by his lust, and wishes him dead/fears for his life. This confusion drives her to abandonment in jazz, drink, dope, and sex, which results in C.D.'s collapse and her self-confrontation and confession.

Betsy Lou's declaration of her identity, her deceit, and her desire for C.D. comes too late. He rejects the contrite Betsy Lou, gives her fifty percent of her money, and leaves her with the advice that she "use it. See its power to corrupt or save …. Learn from our stupidities." She is left with what she initially wanted "only … because it was mine."

In both novels the narrators are left at the point of departure. For Sally Jay the future appears glorious with possibility. She sees her new life as "the end. The end. The last word." However, the author implies that Sally Jay has ended one cycle of learning experiences and is beginning another with her marriage. One is reminded of Stefan's description of the Typical American Girl as the avocado, "So green—so eternally green." She has experienced growth and is more worldly wise, but her final pronouncement indicates that her maturation is not complete. The process has just begun. Similarly, Betsy Lou is left facing her future. She hasn't Sally Jay's confidence of joy, but rather experiences a sense of unreality. She has no delusions about the future, and the past "seems (to) never really (have) happened." She is no longer directed by spurious monetary goals; instead she suffers the bewilderment of a hollow victory. Thus, while both narrators experience an epiphany, that moment of awareness is tinged with irony.

Dundy is an entertaining novelist who rehearses the familiar theme of initiation with adeptness and flair. However, her craftsmanship and energy do not always compensate for her characters' lack of psychological depth nor for her rather formulaic situations. Her novels do not provoke new or refined insights, but they do provide moments of engaging and refreshing humor.

—Deborah Duckworth

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