The Oyster Review
Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado reads like a diary—unlatched and carefree. Its narrator, Sally Jay Gorce, at first comes across as bourgeois and somewhat spoiled. Sally grows more charming with each impulsive act. On the surface, she could be described as childish and flighty (she is 21, after all). But there’s a sincerity and wit that endears her to the reader. Her self-absorption is the kind we see in ourselves: “I find I always have to write something on a steamed mirror. Only this time, I couldn’t think of anything to write. So I just wrote my own name, over and over again.”
Sally’s world is 1950s Paris, where she’s come running to do something original, to “meet people she hasn’t been introduced to,” to be an actress. Life here is sinfully lived to the fullest: champagne cocktails, cigarettes held between the third and fourth fingers, bourbon and sodas, taxis suggesting “your place or mine,” women’s-only apartment buildings, chicken sandwiches “on soft, bouncy white bread with slivers of juicy wet pickles” washed down with iced martinis and strong black coffee. It’s where rich painters forgo their fortune to live in alleged poverty on the Left Bank like everyone else; where nice American girls go to lose their virginity to older, worldly (married) men; and where talk is stylized and affected—mother is pronounced “mothah.”
First published in 1958, this overdue reissue by NYRB Classics includes an introduction by Terry Teachout and an afterward by the author, who died in 2008. For a novel that was so well received upon publication, it’s a mystery it ever went out of print in the first place. Ernest Hemingway, Laurence Olivier, and Groucho Marx, all got in touch with Elaine Dundy upon publication to offer their praise. Gore Vidal phoned Dundy one morning saying, “You’ve got the one thing a writer needs: You’ve got your own voice. Now go.”
I was drawn to The Dud Avocado for its romantic portrayal of Paris and youthful spontaneity; what I didn’t expect is how much Dundy had to say about life. Teachout captures it best in the introduction: “If you read it without laughing, you have no sense of humor, but if you read it without shedding at least one tear, you have no memory.” Coming-of-age stories are about the desire to have “real” life experiences, only to discover that they aren’t as beautiful as one expects—those moments when it’s not just flirtation, it’s sex, and not just a few drinks and dances and staying out late with friends, but it is, perhaps, something as regrettable as going home with someone whom you don’t really want to go home with. Or it’s leaving the solid man for the more ebullient one who later will “quietly, systematically” beat you up. The life experience we want is often not all it’s cracked up to be. Eventually cynicism—actually, wisdom—sets in and gets the best of our narrator (and us): “What a wonderful evening it could have been if only it had happened a year before.” Sally Jay Gorce comes of age, ripening before our eyes. The symbolism summoned at a Parisian cafe table is not lost on her: “His avocado arrived and he looked at it lovingly. ‘The Typical American Girl,’ he said, addressing it. ‘A hard center with the tender meat all wrapped up in a shiny casing.’”
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