“I only read non-fiction”, some people say, as if there was only truth in history or political analysis or science. They refuse to waste their time on fiction. More’s the pity, for that’s where truth REALLY hangs out.
I’m reading the wonderful stories of Dorothy Parker and I have to say her understanding shines brighter, sharper, and stronger than any non-fiction book about relationships or human behaviour or the story of societies. Stronger than Alice Munro’s tales but often in the same area of what others tend to put down as woman’s stories (argh!), her message comes at you with like a thunderbolt, leaving you gasping as the realization of what she has done hits. I simply don’t understand why Parker is often described solely as the quick witted riposte queen, when she was obviously a writing powerhouse and always has been.
The story “Mr. Durant” is such a blast. She tells the story of a self-centred man in tones of such casual damning it’s not until you get to the last paragraphs that you realize how horrid he truly is. He is married, with two children, a wife he calls Mummy.
He has an affair. She gets pregnant, he insists upon and pays for an abortion. He is completely blind why she would want never to work with him again. Rather he thinks this is perfect, all tidied up, as it were. He won’t even have to run into her and suffer any embarrassment at work. He heads home, smug in his ability to put things away.
The children find a lost and starving puppy, and at first he is finally persuaded to keep it.
Until he learns it is a girl.
“Into his den, Mr. Durant preceded his wife, and faced her, still frowning. His calm was not shattered, but it was punctured….
“Now, you know perfectly well, Fran, we can’t have that dog around,” he told her. He used the low voice reserved for underwear and bathroom articles and kindred shady objects. There was kindness in his tones that one has for a backward child, but Gibraltar-like firmness was behind it. “You must be crazy to even think for a minute. Why, I wouldn’t give a she-dog houseroom, not for any amount of money. It’s disgusting, that’s what it is.”
…”Disgusting,” he repeated. “You have a female around, and you know what happens. All the males in the neighbourhood will be running after her. First thing you know, she’ll be having puppies – and the way they look after them and all!…I should think you’d think of the children, Fran. No sir, they’ll be nothing like that around here, not while I know it. Disgusting!”
He sends the dog away when the children are sleeping, so he never has to break a promise (he promised they could keep it) – “I’ve never broken a promise yet, have I?” he asks in his banally awful way.
“Again his mind wrapped itself in the knowledge that everything was fixed, all ready for a nice fresh start.”
Don’t you just want to slap this man senseless? This one nine-page story manages to install the kind of hatred for a man that makes you think of violence, everything from the being called “Daddy” by his wife, to his self-explanations for horrid behaviour, to his pride in “keeping promises” while laying waste to all the hearts around him.
And don’t you know people that are like this? Egad. Makes my skin crawl, but yes, I do.
Read all of Dorothy Parker’s stories. You won’t regret it, but you might need a drink afterwards. As for me, I have a new/old mentor. It will be fun trying to emulate her…