A Kingdom of Cobras
FOR HENRY JAMES, an American girl abroad was a dovelike creature, all too easily undone by the serpentine charms of Old World society. Not everybody can accept James's lingering stereotype nowadays. But no one more volubly refutes it than pixyish, thirtyish Elaine Dundy, a Long Islander of a different feather entirely. She fluttered into London via a year in Paris in 1950, soon nested high in the cultural Establishment as the wife of Drama Critic Kenneth Tynan, and has since chronicled the peregrinations of a pair of non-innocents abroad in a pair of small, bright novels.
Dundy's first American heroine, Sally Jay Gorce in The Dud Avocado, was a memorably silly goose engulfed by all manner of insidious plots. Her second, a neurotic coed loosed upon London society in search of loot, can best be described as a pit viper fallen among king cobras. Honey Flood, as she calls herself, tries to put the permanent bite on a fat-cat Englishman by killing him to get his money, but discovers much to her surprise that she would rather have her victim in bed than dead.
Wood-Notes Wild. On that morsel of plot Novelist Dundy drapes copious flimflammery about father figures and love-hate syndromes that no one could possibly take seriously. Happily, however, the pursuit of C. D. ("Seedy") McKee brings Honey Flood face to face with stately homes and Soho nightspots, London fogs and Mayfair mayhem. She finds herself at war with the whole English race. It is a form of infighting of which Elaine Dundy is plainly a well-scarred veteran. Before she is through, any true-blue U.S. reader is likely to feel that even a money-mad American would-be murderess is less lethal than the British upper classes who snub her in the drawing room and condescend to her in the boudoir.
In self-defense, Honey begins studying her opponents' taboos and table talk as if observing some barbarous tribe—only to find that that is precisely what she is observing. She faithfully records its wood-notes wild; "The elative d—dazzling, delicious, devastating, divine; and the deflative b—beastly, bloody, boring, the bottom." A simple "oh" has two compressed syllables that come out like "eau." She coins her own anthropological aphorisms: at the English dinner party, "people come not so much to eat as to be eaten."
She even tries to match her hosts insult for insult. Hostess: "We thought all Americans were gangsters." Honey: "And we thought all Englishmen were gentlemen." She usually loses anyway because they merely enjoy her wit.
Thick & Thin. Nonetheless, on paper Honey sometimes scores hilariously. "The waiters looked as if they'd staggered out of some old dark hole," she remarks, sizing up a venerable London restaurant. "They creaked and wobbled and limped and trembled under their loads, their turkey-gobbler necks rising pink and plucked from their stiff winged collars. The genuinely old-fashioned bad service that was being meted out impartially to us all was instantly recognizable as the real thing: a subtle, sophisticated Old World incompetence we Americans can never hope to emulate, the best our rustic efforts can produce being a superficial smart-alec rudery."
But for all her wit and wiles, Honey is no match for the race she delineates as unparalleled "for growing flowers and withering people." The wistful cause of New World vulnerability, Author Dundy suggests, is not so much the thickness of the British hide as the thinness of the American skin. Worse, however rudely and frequently repulsed in their efforts to join the club, Yanks won't take neau for an answer.