“Not for chicks only”: Teachout on The Dud Avocado

Reading my friend Terry Teachout’s literary criticism tends to make me wish he wrote more of it. Over the years his praise has sent me off in search of many books — Cakes and Ale among them — that have since become favorites.

Below I post for your enjoyment, and with permission, his introduction to Elaine Dundy’s highly entertaining The Dud Avocado, which is republished this week by NYRB Classics. (Elsewhere, see Kate Bolick’s recent conversation with the 85-year-old Dundy.)

It is the destiny of some good novels to be perpetually rediscovered, and Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, I fear, is one of them. Like William Maxwell’s The Folded Leaf or James Gould Cozzens’s Guard of Honor, it bobs to the surface every decade or so, at which time somebody writes an essay about how good it is and somebody else clamors for it to be returned to print, followed in short order by the usual slow retreat into the shadows. In a better-regulated society, of course, the authors of such books would be properly esteemed, and on rare occasions one of them does contrive to clamber into the pantheon — Dawn Powell, the doyenne of oft-rediscovered authors, finally made it into the Library of America in 2001 — but in the normal course of things, such triumphs are as rare as an honest stump speech.

The Dud Avocado is further handicapped by being funny. Americans like comedy but don’t trust it, a fact proved each year when the Oscars are handed out: our national motto seems to be Lord Byron’s “Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter/Sermons and soda-water the day after.” To be sure, The Dud Avocado is perfectly serious, but it preaches no sermons, and what it has to say about life must be read between the punch lines. That was what kept Powell under wraps for so long — nobody thought that a writer so amusing could really be any good, especially if she was also a woman — and it has been working against Elaine Dundy ever since she published The Dud Avocado, her first novel, in 1958. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that The Dud Avocado has never been out of print in England. I’m no Anglophile, but I readily admit that the Brits are better at this sort of thing. Unlike us, they treat their comic novelists right, perhaps because Shakespeare and Jane Austen taught them early on that (as Constant Lambert once observed apropos of the delicious music of Chabrier) “seriousness is not the same as solemnity.”

Now The Dud Avocado is out again in the United States, and I’ll bet money that some dewy-eyed young critic is going to read it for the first time and write an essay about how Sally Jay Gorce, Elaine Dundy’s adorably scatty heroine, was the spiritual grandmother of Bridget Jones. To which I say… nothing. I actually kind of like poor old Bridget, but if you want to properly place The Dud Avocado in the grand scheme of things, you should look not forward to Chick Lit but backward to Daisy Miller. Sally is Daisy debauched, an innocent ambassador from the new world who crosses the Atlantic, loses her virginity, and learns in the fullness of time that experience, while not all it’s cracked up to be, is nothing if not inevitable — and that Europe, for all its sophisticated ways, is no longer the keeper of the flame of Western civilization. Paris may be “the rich man’s plaything, the craftsman’s tool, the artist’s anguish, and the world’s largest champagne factory,” but you don’t have to live there to live, and once Sally gets to know some of its not-so-nice residents, she has a flash of full-fledged epiphany that is no less believable for having popped up in the middle of a comic novel:

“They are corrupt — corrupt,” I kept saying to myself, over and over again, as I paced around the room. It was the first time I’d ever used that word about people I actually knew, and again the idea that I could take a moral stand — or rather, that I couldn’t avoid taking one — filled me with the same confusion it had that morning.

I don’t want to leave the impression that The Dud Avocado is in any way po-faced. It is above all a book about youth, about a clever girl’s realization that she is up to her ears in possibility, and every page bears the breathless stamp of her new-found freedom: “Frequently, walking down the streets in Paris alone, I’ve suddenly come upon myself in a store window grinning foolishly away at the thought that no one in the world knew where I was at just that moment.” In the very first sentence, Sally tells us that it is “a hot, peaceful, optimistic sort of day in September,” the kind of day that Ned Rorem, another clever young American who came to Paris in the Fifties, must surely have had in mind when he turned Robert Hillyer’s “Early in the Morning” into a perfect little song about what it feels like to find love on the rue François Premier: “I was twenty and a lover/And in Paradise to stay,/Very early in the morning/Of a lovely summer day.” If you read it without laughing, you have no sense of humor, but if you read it without shedding at least one tear, you have no memory.

The Dud Avocado was extremely well received on its initial publication. “It made me laugh, scream and guffaw (which, incidentally, is a great name for a law firm),” Groucho Marx declared in a fan letter to the author. “If this was actually your life, I don’t know how the hell you got through it.” It was, more or less, and Groucho didn’t know the half of it, for in 1951 Dundy had the bad luck to marry Kenneth Tynan, a great drama critic who turned out to be a comprehensively lousy husband, and though she would publish other good books, she never became quite as famous as she should have been. To make matters worse, Dundy began to lose her sight shortly after writing an alarmingly candid memoir cheerily titled Life Itself! in which she told her side of the unhappy story of her marriage. By then The Dud Avocado, her best book, had already gone through three or four cycles of obscurity and revival. Perhaps this long-overdue new edition will bring it the permanence it so richly deserves.

But even if The Dud Avocado is doomed to remain one of those novels that is loved by a few and unknown to everyone else, we lucky few who love it will never stop recommending it to our friends, for it is so full of charm and life and something not unlike wisdom that there will always be readers who open it up and see at once that it is just their kind of book. Every time I read it, I find myself tripping over sentences I long to have written: “A rowdy bunch on the whole, they were most of them so violently individualistic as to be practically interchangeable.” “It’s amazing how right you can sometimes be about a person you don’t know; it’s only the people you do know who confuse you.” “I mean, the question actors most often get asked is how they can bear saying the same things over and over again night after night, but God knows the answer to that is, don’t we all anyway; might as well get paid for it.” I rank it alongside Cakes and Ale, Scoop, Lucky Jim, and Dawn Powell’s A Time to Be Born, a quartet of soufflé-light entertainments that will still be giving pleasure long after most of the Serious Novels of the twentieth century are dead, buried, and forgotten. A chick litterateuse could do a lot worse for herself.


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