Dundy and Hall: The NYRB Loses Two, While Keeping Their Work Alive
It seems like every other week I write a parenthetical here about how much I love the brilliantly curated New York Review Books reprint series, which has yet to steer me even close to wrong. So I wanted to note the passing this month of two NYRB authors, both of whose cult-favorite books have been on my bought-but-not-read pile (aka, my house) for some time:
Elaine Dundy, 1921-2008
Terry Teachout, on About Last Night, spent much of the past couple of weeks waiting around for the New York Times to get around to noticing the passing of Dundy, who died at the age of 86 on May 1. Finally they did on May 10, but before that the LA Times and the Guardian had written appreciations, as did Teachout himself. He also wrote the introduction to Dundy's novel, The Dud Avocado, when NYRB brought it back last year and made a bit of a hit out of it almost a half-century after it had become a surprise international bestseller, as a charming, semifictional account of her madcap life as a young American in Paris. As all the obits point out, her life was at least as dramatic as her fiction: she married the legendary critic Kenneth Tynan and, as the LA Times puts it, "in between the beatings and arguments was a charmed life amid the literati and Hollywood and theatrical elite, including Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Laurence Olivier, Gore Vidal and Orson Welles." She wrote two other novels as well as a "frothy" late memoir, Life Itself! (will the NYRB bring this back next?), and turned to biography, including, somewhat improbably, Elvis and Gladys, an account of the King's relationship with his mother that the Boston Globe apparently called "nothing less than the best Elvis book yet," even though Dundy claimed to have been ignorant of Presley and his music until after he died.
Oakley Hall, 1920-2008
Hall wrote over a dozen novels, but became perhaps better known as a writing teacher and a presiding figure in the world of Western letters. As a director of the Cal-Irvine writing program for two decades he mentored, among others, Michael Chabon and Richard Ford, and he cofounded the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley writers' conference; he also wrote two writing guides, How Fiction Works and The Art and Craft of Novel Writing. Fine. But if someone was writing my obituary (or at least my Wikipedia entry) and they included only this single sentence, that would be more than enough: "In Thomas Pynchon's introduction to Richard Fariña's Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me, Pynchon stated that he and Fariña started a "micro-cult" around Warlock." Here's the full Pynchon quote, thanks to Search Inside:
Also in '59 we simultaneously picked up on what I still think is among the finest of American novels, Warlock, by Oakley Hall. We set about getting others to read it too, and for a while had a micro-cult going. Soon a number of us were talking in Warlock dialogue, a kind of thoughtful, stylized, Victorian-Wild West diction.
Uh, what more could you ask for than that? --Tom