Archive » January 25, 2007
By Shelly Lowenkopf
There are reviews…and then there are reviews. Just last week, I sent author Chris Moore an e-mail congratulating him on a review by Janet Maslin in The New York Times of “You Suck,” his new book about a vampire. Mostly a positive review, Maslin’s comments left Moore feeling “as if she were picking lint off my sweater and saying ‘I think we both know you can do better.’ My seventh grade English teacher used to do that.”
One of the most memorable book reviews ever written had a considerable bite to it, although it began innocently enough: “This is not a book to be set aside lightly.” OK, so far. Then the reviewer hit full stride: “It should be thrown across the room with great force.”
Readers of my generation will immediately identify the reviewer as Dorothy Parker (1893-1967), a larger-than-life critic, short-story writer, poet, and screenwriter. She hit the New York literary scene with the literal and figurative effect of a bottle of bathtub gin, one-upping and trading quips with a group of artists, critics, editors, and writers who met for lunch daily at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. The Algonquin Group’s lunches were often more liquid than not. They frequently became rancorous and splenetic, with real or imagined offenses brooded over through the throbbing perigee of next morning’s hangover. In many ways the effects of the Algonquin lunches spilled into the plays, reviews, novels, and motion pictures produced by the iconic group. Their grudges, love affairs, and one-liners became the zeitgeist of the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. Of them all, Dorothy Parker’s wit, critical sensitivities, and raw, hung-over talent most gloriously withstood the ravages of time and change. Even today, nearly 40 years after her death, a revisit to her writing will produce more than a flickering glow of nostalgia.
Marion Meade has produced two worthwhile biographical studies, “Dorothy Parker, What Fresh Hell Is This?” (Penguin) and her 2005 tour through what she considers the 10 most exciting years of Parker’s life, “Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin,” (Harvest Books), in which Parker shares the stage with another Algonquin-ite, Edna Ferber, along with Zelda Fitzgerald, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Meade is impressed but not overawed by the Parker mythos.
“Not Much Fun: the Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker,” provides a close look at her poetry, more remembered for its wit and flashes of pathos than the serious probing of Millay’s poetry. The title for the collection and the theme behind it was born when a bartender asked Parker one night, “What are you having?”
Many larger bookstores and online vendors continue to list Parker titles. My choice for the best approach to the works of Dorothy Parker comes from Viking Press, with its distinguished Portable Library series. Like Dorothy Parker herself, “The Viking Portable Dorothy Parker” is bursting at the seams with evidences of talent, beginning with an admiring-but-frank introduction by her fellow New Yorker magazine writer, Brendan Gill, who starts with the surprise of many readers upon learning that Parker died of relatively natural causes at age 73. This extensive compendium plays out some 600-plus pages later with a valedictory by arguably one of the great short story writers of the past century, Somerset Maugham. “Only a very mediocre writer is always at his best,” Maugham wrote, “and Dorothy Parker is not a mediocre writer.”
The first 370 pages of “The Portable Parker” were published during her lifetime, containing stories, poems, and reviews she liked. In the first section is a short story, “Here We Are,” that in its own iconic way ranks with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair.”
“Well!” the young man said. “Well. How does it feel to be an old married lady?”
“Oh, it’s too soon to ask me that,” she said. “At least – I mean. Well, I mean. Goodness, we’ve only been married about three hours, haven’t we?”
They are in a Pullman car, headed toward their honeymoon hotel in New York, he in a new blue suit, her with the price sticker still stuck to the sole of her shoe. Although they emerge now a bit dated, their dialogue captures them the way a contemporary device – fly paper – used to capture flies. There they are, after all this time, waiting for us.
Part Two contains later stories, reviews (mostly from The New Yorker) and articles from Esquire. Her reviewer nom du guerre was Constant Reader, under which title she went after her nemesis, A. A. Milne, first with an observation that if the play under review was as many critics judged “a fine play, I am Richard Brinsley Sheridan.” But her most trenchant attack on Milne came as the payoff to her review of “The House at Pooh Corner,” where “Tonstant Weader Fwowed up.”
Local author Barnaby Conrad, by all accounts a fan of Parker, has felt his loyalty being tugged. His literature professor at Yale, William Lyon Phelps, did not come out well from a critical New Yorker piece and Conrad’s boss, Sinclair Lewis, emerges with a respectable-but-not-spectacular batting average. Of one of Lewis’s lesser-known novels, “The Man Who Knew Coolidge,” Parker accused him of “laying it on with a trowel.” Parker did enjoy Dashiell Hammett’s “The Glass Key” (who wouldn’t?); her tastes also ran to George Bernard Shaw, Ring Lardner, and James Thurber. She had pleasant enough comments for her Algonquin table chum Edna Ferber, and although somewhat shrill with Katherine Anne Porter, Parker managed to signal approval.
My own favorite of all of Parker’s works does not have the edge of her higher levels of dudgeon or the riposte that kills or even the bitterness sometimes resident in her work. To find it, I had to resort to the older edition of “The Portable Parker,” published in 1944. My own copy is the fourteenth printing from 1961. The story is “The Standard of Living.” Annabel and Midge are New York working girls whom we first meet coming out of a tea room, “their Saturday afternoon stretched ahead of them. They had lunched as was their wont on sugar, starches, oils and butter fats.” They have no idea of the Parkeresque adventure before them, as indeed no Parker character does. But adventure and speculation and irony are all there, waiting.
It was Dorothy Parker who, when she saw F. Scott Fitzgerald at the funeral parlor, said, “The poor S.O.B.” It was Dorothy Parker who, when told that Calvin Coolidge was dead, responded, “How can they tell?”
This is the same Dorothy Parker who surprised friends, readers, and targets of her wit alike by living on past them. “The Viking Portable Dorothy Parker” – your assured seat at the Algonquin.
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