Monday, September 17, 2007

Just don't know what to do with mysel-el-elf

I was on the couch after work today, reading Dorothy Parker's letter to playwright John Patrick, when I turned the page and found...the index.

I finished The Portable Dorothy Parker.

I never intended to read this book all in one go; it's so big ("portable," ha!) and so long and so short-fiction-y that I thought it would be a dip-in-and-out kind of read. But then I found myself taken in by the short stories--a rare thing for me--and zipping through the verse sections, and here I am six weeks later, done already. And it does feel like an "already"; I know I've been reading the same book for a long time, but it still felt like a bit of a surprise to actually finish. I was enjoying the leisurely read. It was like she was telling me all about herself.

In fact, what surprised me most and touched me most about TPDP is the sense of her as a character--as a woman--that develops in her work. I first read Parker in ninth-grade English, when we read some of her sarcastic poetry. Her verses ("I cannot say poems," she says later on) establish her as a great wit, and they're good for sucking people in: they're short and sharp and accessible. But I was surprised to find Dorothy Parker the person in all of it: she's boy-crazy and disturbed by her own lack of will power; she's smart but sees the liability in being a "girl who wear(s) glasses." Men distress her, but so do women. (The men in her stories are cads, but I was surprised and pleased to find that the women aren't any better; they're flighty and uncertain, and they let the men act the way they do.) Sometimes she's heartbreaking (and heartbroken); sometimes she's hilarious; often she's both at the same time. It all comes together into a surprisingly unified portrait of a woman who's a little bit disgusted, not only by the people around her, but by her own tendencies.

The last third of the book is a collection of DP's work for Vogue, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker, along with a few other magazines. My feeling about this section can best be summed up by her review/rant on Dashiell Hammett: "It is true that he is so hard-boiled you could roll him on the White House lawn," she says. "And it is also true that he is a good, hell-bent, cold-hearted writer, with a clear eye for the ways of hard women and a fine ear for the ways of hard men, and his books are exciting and powerful and--if I may filch the word from the booksy ones--pulsing. It is difficult to conclude and outburst like this. All I can say is that anybody who doesn't read him misses much of modern America. And hot that sounds! Dashiell Hammett is as American as a sawed-off shotgun. He is as immediate as a special extra. Brutal he is, but his brutality, for what he must write, is clean and necessary, and there is in his work none of the smirking and swaggering savageries of a Hecht or a Bodenheim. He does his readers the infinite courtesy of allowing them to supply descriptions and analyses for themselves. He sets down only what his characters say, and what they do. It is not, I suppose, any too safe a recipe for those who cannot create characters; but Dashiell Hammett can and does and has and, I hope, will."

Isn't that fantastic? She is passionate and specific and she's so well-spoken that it kind of makes me want to never write a review again (she says, as she types away at her review. So meta!) The reviews in the last section are reviews of people who are still famous, without the filter of history. She's writing about her contemporaries and her friends, and it's fantastic. They're lighter than the fiction, but still with a very specific voice. They make me want to use "I" in (non-blog) reviews, just because she does. She shares a little more of herself consciously in her non-fiction writing. And she is, of course, charming and clever on a constant basis. In all, a pleasure.

I feel like I got so much more out of TPDP than I expected; she feels a bit like an old friend now, and I suspect I'll have to come visit her every now and then. She's not particularly joyful, but I'd consider her a joy.

Now. What next?

No comments: