If you think about American writers, does Dorothy Parker come to mind? She’s known for being an almost supernaturally brilliant smartass, as in the line “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” And of course there is deep truth to that. One of her most famous lines was based on using the word “horticulture” in a sentence, with “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”
This kind of cleverness-in-brief rather summed up my own knowledge of Dorothy Parker, and while I admired and was entertained by that ability, I had no idea what she was like as a writer. Then I read her Complete Stories, and with increasing amazement I felt as if I had opened a door that should have been flung wide years ago. Her talent is awe inspiring.
For psychological insight, Parker is equal to Dostoyevsky, or better. Unlike Dostoyevsky, she did not write vast epic novels full of angst and snow, but rather short pieces set in Manhattan apartments, full of anguish and woe. From my previous belief that Dorothy Parker was the clever creator of witty lines (true enough), it was a shock to discover just how dark her stories are. Many of them, in fact, feel so hopelessly bleak that it clutches at the soul to read them.
It’s difficult—well no, impossible, really—with short quotes to fully convey both the dark pessimism of these stories, as well as the jaw-dropping brilliance of such a writer. But here is a small sample from the story Big Blonde, in which a woman, in despair at the emptiness of her life, tries to kill herself:
He admired her completely. Her softness and size delighted him. And he thought she was great, he often told her, because she kept gay and lively when she was drunk.
“Once I had a gal,” he said, “used to try and throw herself out of the window every time she got a can on. Jee-zuss,” he added, feelingly.
Given Parker’s focus on Manhattan, and given that so many of her stories involve people, almost always women, who are either unhappy now, or soon will be, she is reminiscent of Edith Wharton. While Wharton, however, writes about the polished savages of upper-class New York, Parker writes about social classes who sometimes aim at those elites, but who only fool themselves.
The darkness of the writing is sometimes alleviated by the pleasure of how astonishingly well it is crafted. Most writers who walk this earth can only aspire to such a skill. Parker writes in styles that can vary sharply from one story to another, but always with a vivid awareness of language, sometimes with an echo of Shakespeare, sometimes in the literary language of her time, and sometimes using contemporary street slang.
Let’s take a few lines at random from different stories, just for a feeling of Parker’s writing:
- And then, of course, there is all her shopping to do. Mrs. Legion’s shopping has never yet reached a stage even approaching completion.
- Decent people didn’t just go away and leave their wives and families that way. All right, suppose you weren’t decent; what of it?
- “Mme. Marah,” his mother said, “may I present my son?” “Christ, he’s a big bastard, isn’t he?” the true friend said.
- Rinse, now, is less the intellectual type and more the fluffy.
There is also humor sprinkled through this collection of stories, mostly the sort of humor we might expect from Dorothy Parker, satire like a surgical knife, as in this bit: “…she inspected her finger nails of so thick and glistening a red that it seemed as if she but recently had completed tearing an ox apart with her naked hands.”
In this collection of stories it’s possible to see Parker change over the years, beginning with very short pieces, many of them done in the voice (or from the point of view) of a single character, so that the reader is intensely immersed in those thoughts. By the late 1930s, the stories had grown longer, and there was more narrative, as Parker pulled back to observe the characters more. There is even one very unusual story, set in Spain during the Civil War. Such a setting naturally makes me think of Hemingway, but typical of Parker’s style, that story also concentrates on the psychology of the characters.
Having read this book, I now have a new regret in life, that I did not know Dorothy Parker. Life supplies endless new reasons for regret, one of its petulant little tricks. I think Parker would have agreed with that, and maybe made a joke out of it.