Every once in a while a cover or a description of an NYRB title will put me off and make me think it’s not quite for me. I’d been hearing pretty good things around the internets about The Dud Avocado but I kept thinking, “The dud avocado?” Plus the whole, young American girl runs wild in Paris, blah blah. But I was way wrong.
For most of the novel, it is the story of a young American girl running wild in Paris, but Elaine Dundy gives Sally Jay Gorce, our heroine and narrator, such a great voice. She’s cool, but not actually that cool. She hangs out with a lot of cool people, but when she recounts their nights out she doesn’t seem terribly impressed. She’s having fun, mostly, but she doesn’t have a lot of illusions about how damn serious everything is, like so many characters do.
Sally Jay gets a lot of her good personality, I think, from her Uncle Roger, the rich relative funding her escapades. He makes a deal with her at a young age that once she’s done with school he’ll pay for her to go off and do whatever she wants for two years.
For the first time he spoke to me man to man. “I think I understand your predilection for being continually on the wing, or rather, to put it more precisely, on the lam,” he said seriously. “It’s difficult to know nowadays where adventure lies. There are no more real frontiers. Funny how these things work out. I came roaring out of the Middle West, you know, and my greatest ambition was to conquer—that’s how I saw it—to conquer New York; New York and the mysterious, civilized East. Now my father before me had set his sights on conquering the Middle West. That was his adventure. I wonder what you will try to conquer? Europe, I suppose, since our family seems to be going backwards.”
It seems strange, but that passage, more than any of the bits in Paris or the South of France, was my foundation for thinking about Sally Jay. Well it’s a bit typical for me really, as I’ve been interested for a while in both Midwesterners going back East and Americans going back to Europe. There’s a tension there that I like.
What makes The Dud Avocado really surprisingly good, though, is that after a couple hundred pages of very funny and definitely engaging escapades with Sally Jay, it almost becomes a mystery novel and we get a big reveal that puts everything that came before in a new light, for us and for our heroine. It’s so good I really won’t give any of it away, and I think drastically changes the character of things in the last 50 or so pages. Made me like Sally Jay even more, too, even if she is a little silly.
And then she leaves corrupt Paris for the States, and has to go to Chicago, right here in the Middle West, to realize what’s been in her nightmares and exorcise it. Then she can go on and have a real life, like she wondered about in Paris. It’s hard for her to fall in love again, sure, and I was right there with her wondering whether it would be safe. But there are real changes, real growth, not just nominal emotional stuff, development brought on by trauma and revelation and bringing with it real life changes.
The title turns out to be totally good, too. “‘The Typical American Girl,’ he said, addressing it. ‘A hard center with the tender meat all wrapped up in a shiny casing.’ He began eating it. ‘How I love them,’ he murmured greedily. ‘So green—so eternally green.’”