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The Old Man and Me

by Elaine Dundy (1963; NYRB, 2009)

In her preface to the revision of her picaresque romance of 1963, The Old Man and Me, Elaine Dundy calls her first-person narrator, Betsy Lou Saegessor, a/k/a Honey Flood, "thoroughly bad." This is just right. "Evil" would have been off the mark, an unheeding exaggeration. Honey Flood can't be evil — whatever that means, because the world that Ms Dundy has spun with her smart but silky prose won't allow Honey to be anything worse than very naughty. Of the setting, the author writes,

London was not the Mecca for tourists it has become. It was however regrouping itself for its cultural explosion, its fashions of Carnaby Street, its playwrights' invasion of Broadway, to say nothing of the Liverpool sound of the Beatles and the Glaswegian sound of James Bond.

This is a London that is all set to Have Fun. Toward the end, there is one of those famous pea-soup fogs that turned out to be all about coal fires, but, symbolically not only of the novel's dιnouement but of London's future as well, it clears up one night, just like that, and the mad adventure comes to an end.

This is not the occasion for strolling through the rogues' gallery of vixens and anti-heroes spawned in the late Fifties and early Sixties, when being "bad" became, for the first time in the Anglophone world, truly and openly glamorous. James Bond shows how the square was circled: a cool assassin who will bed any woman who want him, his character is sanitized by his allegiance to the (presumably anti-Communist) Forces of Good. Similarly, Beats and Angry Young Men not only denounced the tedious, soul-starving hypocrisy of what was now recognized as suburban life but openly rejected its respectabilities. Such "bad" characters were appealingly alive. So long as they looked and talked more or less in the enemy fashion — in complete sentences, and dressed in suits and ties — they were actually appealing. Honey Flood's London dates from this transitional moment. You could take all the drugs that you liked, as long as you remained presentable.

Honey (we will not call her by her real name) is an operator, a scheming adventuress in London, but, unlike most adventuresses, she is not out for the main chance; in fact, she has just one very specific adventure in mind. It is not even a true adventure, really, because Honey only wants what she believes to be rightfully hers. The daughter of a millionaire retailer (of televisions, principally — there is a grubby vagueness about this enterprise that wholly suits this tale), Honey has seen her inheritance disappear into the pockets of her father's second wife (a woman whom she despises), and from there into the coffers of this unfortunate woman's second husband, a grand old Pooh Bah called C D McKee. McKee is a distinctly English type, a self-made scholar (with an Oxbridge fellowship) who went on to do great things in decryption during the War. He's presented as so old and august that you half think that it's the First War that's being talked about; in fact, McKee is only fifty-six. But in 1962, fifty-six was elderly.

Brigadier general and good guy that he is, however, McKee mustn't be confused with James Bond. His body is a middle-aged ruin: "round, tubby, pillow-paunchy, it had the consistency of foam rubber." But when Honey finally beds him, she's surprised to find that sex with McKee is better than sex with "slim hard-bodied young men." At least while it lasts. For Honey has a tiny bad-faith problem. It would be one thing if her attitude toward McKee were merely duplicitous. What's worse is that she can't decide whether she loves him or wants him dead. For she wants both. She wants McKee in her arms. But she also wants her money, and she can't have that, she discovers rather insouciantly in the course of her adventure, until he's dead.  

When we were finished we were covered, absolutely covered with each other. And yet I was never surprised at finding myself, six or seven hours later and in my own bed, in real trouble, seized with a shuddery revulsion of shame and disgust. How could I have? All those things. And with that fat old monster? And on top of everything else — who was using whom? The original idea had been to enslave him for ever with my womanly wiles but rather the opposite seemed to be happening. For in spite of those sixth-and seventh-hour shudderings at the ghastly unnaturalness of the liaison, in spite of the painfully sharp recollections of my slender, delicate, gloriously young body stretched out alongside his vast old bulk — I am still at a loss to explain it — but in spite of all this — not once was I able to resist him in the flesh.

"The original idea had been to enslave him for ever with my womanly wiles but rather the opposite seemed to be happening" — what a glorious sentence! And how consonant with the main principle of the story, which is that Honey is, most of all, young. Her single-mindedness is impressive but inconstant; her objectives shift from moment to moment. Always immersed in the present, she is rarely confused by changes in plan, but sporadic bouts of reflection reduce her to paralytic funk. Her tactics appear to be effective, but her strategy, involving as it does a thorny contradiction, never comes into focus. The story, therefore, is not about Honey's attack on "Seedy," as she comes to think of him. It's about her discovery that the actual is always fantastically more complicated than the intentional. I'm not sure that she ever quite realizes that being a really dedicated schemer does not rule out the possibility of becoming the object of other people's schemes. 

Honey's skills as a campaigner don't matter much in the end, though, because she is such a gifted talker. Her way of talking, peppered lightly with period slang, is always pointedly articulate. She is clear even when she clearly doesn't fully understand her own statements. Not so much the unreliable narrator, Honey is a serenely deluded one. Her tone is brisk even when she's indulging herself, as in the apostrophe ΰ la Nabokov that the author has her addressing to her victim lover about two-thirds of the way in.

Lying around every room of your house, my feet upon your chairs and sofas, "O teach me how to sneer," I would say, remembering some disparaging remark of yours earlier on that day, let us say about a snuff box hopefully brought round for your approval b y one of your worshipful friends. "Yes, it is an eighteenth-century snuff box," (pause for closer inspection — timing was everything in this game) "but it's a poor man's one." (Seedy, I shall always think of you as a poor man's snuff box. How merrily our eyes met, dancing over the defeated head of the downcast Collector.) But later on, I would start feeling sorry for her — it generally was a woman — for her carelessly spoiled pleasure, and I would remember (still earlier that same day) you to the proud owner of the newly decorated house in Brompton Square (and decorated only for your dismay it would seem, would it not, Sir Seed?): "Never put a Buhl clock on top of a Bahut Bretonne desk — not even a bogus one." Oh, good stuff, good stuff. And what was the other? "Well, if you're going to collect Staffordshire you're going to have an awful lot of things." And so, "Teach me how to sneer," I would say.

Instead, McKee determines to teach Honey a more useful skill, as Elaine Dundy brings this thoroughly delightful story about a "thoroughly bad" girl to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion. (April 2010)

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