Sometimes you still see them, lurking around Greenwich Village, scurrying past Starbucks and Duane Reade drugstores under their crumpled fedoras, ink-smeared newspapers in their gnarled hands, ghosts. These are the living reminders of the days when any artist, intellectual, blowhard, genius, fakir, poet, or debutante with a diploma from one of the 'Seven Sisters' and a penchant for hard liquor and brittle conversation could turn the world on its head --all within a half-mile radius of Washington Square. That scene was even far gone when Dawn Powell wrote her satiric elegy to it in 1954. But it rings true today, not just as a nostalgia-trip, but as an x-ray of the way people, especially that unique subspecies known as New Yorkers, live and work and make love and generally get on with life.
The Wicked Pavilion is razor sharp social satire that simultaneously mocks and celebrates a poisoned world gone wrong. Powell has been acclaimed by everyone from Gore Vidal to Walter Kirn as America's best comic novelist, even the august Edmund Wilson (a pal of hers but still) spoke of her in the same breath as Evelyn Waugh. I don't know about bestowing the mantel of America's supreme literary court-jester on her, but I do agree that she deserves to be at the same table with Waugh -- especially in his early, vinegar-laced satires like Vile Bodies and Handful of Dust. Powell dissects human interactions wtih a surgeon's sure hand. Her prose is sparkling, her observations brave, her targets -- nailed. Here's how she has one budding novelist evaluate a publshed novelist he meets, and in so doing, her 'fair and balanced' critique of the state of literature:
"Thanks," Briggs said absently. He was staring at the young novelist wondering what it felt like to have your name on a fat book, and have people talking about it as if it meant something. The novel had worried him because the author's method wasn't like his own at all. Instead of building his characters on a sensible economic structure this fellow built them on what they had to eat and drink from the breast right through Schrafft's and the Grand Central Oyster Bar; whatever they elected to eat was evidently supposed to mean something about their hidden natures. Even their retching was recorded and it didn't indicate they had had a bad oyster but meant they were having an emotional crise...Maybe it was the deep sex meaning the fellow gave those menus, for the hero was always drawing some high-bosomed girl into his arms between courses, the hot oatmeal pounding through his veins.
Now that is sour grapes of a very refined vintage indeed. And only gets better with age. The characters are evergreen -- from lost Midwestern arrivistes (Gatsby anyone?) to turgid trustafarians long in the tooth, she paints a portrait of a world gone to seed, but gloriously so. The characters who populate the Cafe Julien -- the physical and psychological center of her world in this book -- are all flawed, and delightfully so. They do silly, stupid, cringe-making things like clockwork, pulling cons on one another, missing dates, making dates, blowing smoke rings and cadging lots and lots of drinks off each other -- in other words, acting like human beings. Powell presents this tragedy in comic terms. There is some local humor, and in many ways it's a wonderful journey to a wonderful world that was already under the wrecker's ball when Powell wrote about it in 1954, but that's part of its charm.
Powell wrote in her letters that this was the most enjoyable writing experience she ever had, that she was sorry to leave the characters behind. I was too.
'Til next time...
Mr. Krimstein is a writer, professor, cartoonist, father, and grump who lives in Chicago. So there.