I am finally starting to catch up on things that I meant to do but couldn’t because I was sick for so long, including this much overdue review of The Portable Dorothy Parker, which I enjoyed immensely.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A collection of poems, short stories, essays, articles, reviews and more, The Portable Dorothy Parker is both fun and fascinating.
Dorothy Parker, famous (or is it infamous) for her wit and humor, never thought much of her work other than as a way to pay her bills. Believing that one had to be a writer of a serious novel before you could be taken seriously, I believe that she did herself and her work a great disservice. In her short stories, many of which consist of nothing more than a conversation between two characters or a stream of consciousness internal monologue, she displays an exceptional talent with dialogue, filling the space between the lines of what is said with hidden tragedies, ironies, and hypocrisies more deftly than many of the novelist that I have read. The most famous example of Parker’s skill in contrasting the stated with the unstated is her Arrangements in Black and White, a short story in a white woman, gushing about the black singer who is attending the same party, reveals a horribly racist and condescending attitude even as she professes that she has “no feelings at all” about his race.
There were several points where Parker’s short stories reminded me of Hemingway’s iceberg theory of writing in which only a small percentage of the story is stated outright while the rest lurks underwater, unseen until the reader delves for it. This was particularly striking while reading Parker’s Lady with a Lamp which seemed like a companion piece (if not a sequel) to Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants both in style and in subject.
If Parker’s short stories reminded me of Hemingway (and occasionally of James Joyce), her poetry (my favorite part of the book) made me instantly think of Edna St. Vincent Millay (one of my all time favorite poets). Neither Millay and Parker were shy about partaking in life, love, and sexuality (see: Millay’s “I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed” and Parker’s “Salome’s Dancing Lesson”) but Parker seemed to be a lot more down to earth about it all with less illusions about the game and how it would play out. Still, despite the heartache inherent in not getting what you want (or worse, getting it), Parker never bows out. She may go into each situation with a wry, here-we-go-again attitude but she still goes in despite knowing better. And this rueful self-awareness, combined with her wit, humor, and just a touch of snark, is what I really enjoy about Parker’s work. Poems like “Unfortunate Coincidence,” “Two-Volume Novel,” “The Red Dress,” and “The Flaw in Paganism” are a lot of fun to read anytime but I can only imagine how much I would have appreciated this book when I was dealing with the ups and downs of dating!
The book also included some articles and essays Parker wrote for various publications, interviews, theater and book reviews, as well as a collection of letters that Parker wrote to various people. I have to admit that the letters were a bit of a let-down. Being out of context and to people that I didn’t necessarily know, they just didn’t catch my attention. I think I would have enjoyed them more in a biography or memoir because then I would have more of a context to put them in. The fact that the book ends with the letters was a bit of a let down, causing me to feel like the book fizzled out rather than ended.
I enjoyed the reviews a lot more. Although Parker’s wit seemed to becoming more curmudgeonly as she got older, her take on authors like Hemingway, Oscar Wilde, A. A. Milne (or as she called him, the author of “Whimsey the Pooh”), Jack Kerouac and Beat culture in general are often hilarious and not to be missed.
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