It’s hard to read Elaine Dundy’s The Old Man and Me without comparing it to her previous novel, The Dud Avocado. I hate to do so, when I really think they’re quite different, but some superficial characteristics just beg for it. Namely, the whole “young American girl in Paris” converted to “young American girl in London” business.
Our narrators do sound a bit similar, but really everything else is different. Sally Jay Gorce isn’t half as ballsy as Honey Flood—or is that even her real name? No, as Dundy says in her introduction to her second novel, Honey is a “Bad Girl,” an “Angry Young Woman,” an antiheroine who “hates everything English,” “operating on a short fuse.”
So while Sally Jay goes on a wild, directionless romp in France, pushed and pulled only by the tides of friends, mood, and whim, Honey is on a mission: to seduce and kill C.D. McKee, the eponymous old man. Their tone and sense of humor is similar, but where Sally Jay gets played, Honey is the one doing the playing.
Look: all I’m trying to say is that there comes a crucial moment in a relationship in which one person is moving towards the other—passing from stranger to acquaintance to something else—when (to be precisely Précieuse for the moment and get out Mademoiselle Scudéry’s Carte de Tendre that I used to study in French class) when one must make the perilous journey from, let us say, the Ville de la Curiosité to the Ville de la Compassion without falling into the Lac d’Indifférence, and C.D. made it via the tale I spun.
C.D. is a real character. Getting on in years, wealthy, a patron of the arts. Known for his unimaginable rudeness, which, in these circles, is really saying something. But he takes a real shine to Honey straight away, and the reader, who can gleefully watch the objects of his derision without danger of becoming one herself, is mostly charmed. For example, to a waiter, who has swapped his and Honey’s drinks: “‘May I recommend that a little ordinary commonsense brought to your job might help you in overcoming your either real or psychological deafness, young man?’ he bellowed. ‘Who at this table looks young enough to risk a midday martini? Who looks wise enough to choose an aperitif?’”
Honey spins her tales, but C.D. is pretty canny, and their affair never makes it seem like he’s been duped, just like they’re having an affair. Our antiheroine gets to manipulate a lot more successfully when it comes to her flatmate, the pathetic Dody who’s just been left by her husband. She can’t make a decision to save her life but trusts Honey, who moves in and begins engineering things so the husband won’t come back and ruin her thrifty housekeeping arrangement. Honey really isn’t cruel to Dody, but she’s not much of a friend either—“I knew that pain was making her selfish but at that moment I really hated her. I was so bored.” But it’s true, Dody really is sad, pathetic, and boring; Honey may be using her, but she does have to sit through hours of unbearable girl talk to do it.
For all that I liked Honey, I liked C.D. quite a lot as well and was never exactly rooting for her to kill him. She certainly had a strange way of attempting it, though. Giving up her hopes of his simply expiring on top of her, and seeming to lack the stomach for doing away with him directly, eventually Honey just hopes that a sustainedly wild lifestyle of booze, sex, and drugs will turn C.D. to Seedy to dead. But no one can sustain that, not even Honey, and we get a great picture of life gone off the rails.
…he asked me why I had a streak of red in my hair.
I didn’t know what he was talking about. I even toyed with the idea that “streak-of-red” might have some symbolic meaning that eluded me but he gripped me hard by the arm and planted me firmly in front of the hallway mirror.
What a sight I was! I hadn’t looked at myself in a mirror, really seeing myself, for over a week (and he, all plump and smiling, fresh-linened, perky pocket-handkerchief’d, eu-decologned, thymey and healthy in the background for contrast). However, he was right. There was a red streak that ran curiously down my hair from the parting. I rubbed it gingerly. I had some idea that it might be blood but it didn’t hurt. I rubbed my fingers together and sighed with relief. “It’s my lipstick,” I said.
“You don’t put lipstick on your hair, you put it on your lips. How did you get it in your hair?”
“The top of the lipstick has been loose for some time and unless I pinch it hard when I put it back on, it keeps falling off. I must have forgotten to.”
“I didn’t ask you that. I asked you how it got into your hair. Are you going to answer me?” He was very upset, shouting, and he was upsetting me too.
“The lipstick must have gotten on to my comb,” I explained, opening my bag and showing him. “That’s all. And then I combed my hair with it.” I was striving for that nice, right blend of logic and nonchalance. But my throwaway wouldn’t work. He’d made me nervous and that thing, that desperate thing, that ever present possiblity of my flip, kept coming through. I could see by the handbag twisting in my hands and it was worse than a pity. Damn that giveaway streak in my hair. It said danger to him. It said watch it, danger. The danger is still here, still playing around her, sliding up and down that crazy red streak in her hair.
Dundy also notes in her introduction that, at the time the novel was written, publishers were giving writers freedom to be more explicit about sexual matters, and that is a firm break from The Dud Avocado and almost jarring. But then, these scenes do add, I think, to our view of Honey as a mature, scheming woman, a bit mad but with a purpose. The origins of that purpose, across the ocean in Honey’s family history, are interesting as well—the creation of a Bad Girl. From start to finish, a bit darker and less light-hearted than Dundy’s first novel. For me, that’s an improvement, but I’m still glad to have the earlier, more frolicking work at well.
NYRB is putting out a new edition of The Old Man and Me in June. Thanks to NYRB and LibraryThing for an advance review copy.