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Good Times, Bad Times: The Complete Stories of Dorothy Parker

Complete StoriesComplete Stories by Dorothy Parker

These days, I suppose Dorothy Parker is best remembered for witty verse, blistering one-liners and maybe her work as a screenwriter in Hollywood. But she was also one hell of a writer, particularly in the short story form. In a time where most writers were self-important white men, Parker was a wit and talent who crossed mediums. In a burst of creativity, she wrote drama reviews, light verse and short stories for a succession of magazines (mostly the New Yorker), a lot of them real good.

Which is both the blessing of a book like this. It collects not just the cream of her stories, but everything she published, right down to a handful of early sketches. While it doesn’t touch on her other talents – no reviews, no verse – it allows you to trace her progression as a writer, from her early sketches to her late, darkly humourous stories.

Parker wrote most of these for the New Yorker, so there’s a very 20s New York vibe at work: speakeasies, upscale urbanites, and lots of social cues. People speak of how well they treat their servants, who are lucky to get a day off a month and the remnants of their castoffs; couples go out for a drink and get royally sloshed, all while proclaiming the virtues of staying sober.

A common criticism of Parker is how she must’ve been unhappy or how she descended into a pool of, I dunno, drink and sadness or something. I guess they imagine she lived in a scene straight out of a Lana Del Ray video. I sort of see where they’re coming from – there are a number of depressed people here – but I never got that impression at all.

A good example of this is her story “Lolita,” which is about an unhappy mother, an unexceptional daughter and the rich man who falls for her. The crux is a broken relationship and the mother’s caustic relationship – she professes wishing the best for her daughter, but wants nothing more than to see her relationship fail – but Parker doesn’t write it like a dark, sad tale.

The daughter’s life is blossoming and the mother can’t accept that change. In Parker’s hands, the story is more about refusing to let go and the perils of growing bitter – the juxtaposition of the two great, since we can see how it’s destroying the mother’s life and we know she won’t let it go.

There is a certain sadness at work here, but it’s usually presented in a way that seems strangely modern: missed messages and mixed signals. Parker wrote in a time of rough phone connections and telegrams. People misunderstand a message on a bad connection or pretend they aren’t home – in a manner that echoes a broken relationship. I can’t say with certainly what Parker would’ve thought of Snapchat, Group DMs or subtweeting, but I imagine it would’ve been a lot like what she wrote nearly 90 years ago.

I think more to the point about Parker and her perception is her use of point-of-view. While most of the time she uses an omnipresent third-person, there a few stories where she instead goes into first-person, often with a character she shares a name with: “The Garter,” “The Waltz,” “The Little Hours.”

In these stories, Parker shows the same themes and ideas as her other stories – miscommunication, social cues, etc – and uses them to great effect. In “The Waltz,” Dorothy dances with a klutz who keeps stepping on her feet and can’t get away from a party she doesn’t want to be at – but she doesn’t say no or try to leave in a comedy of manners.

For nitpickers and over-zealous critics, the way these stories are presented makes easy pickings for people to project on her. When she had trouble sleeping, did she really start thinking about La Rouchfoucauld? Who knows? And more importantly, who cares? I think it’s safe to say Parker wasn’t a memoirist. As Regina Barreca notes in her introduction, “when an author’s words are confused with her deeds, they too often act as substitutions for a truly conscientious consideration of her work and life.”

Indeed, a collection like this shows that while Parker’s output slowed over the years – the bulk of these stories come between 1926 and 1933 – the quality remained fairly consistent. Stories like “Song of the Shirt: 1941, ““Lolita” and “The Lovely Leave” are still pretty good.

My Penguin copy has a nice introduction by Barreca, who examines the themes of Parker’s stories, her life and how people often conflate the two, plus a handful of early sketches by Parker that I more or less skimmed through; they’re amusing, but not really essential.

Rating: 8/10. An enjoyable collection of stories and a book I’d recommend for anything who likes short fiction. As an overview of Parker’s work, it’s a little lacking, but Penguin’s The Portable Dorothy Parker does a good job of that.