Poet, satirist, wit, critic, essayist and notable exponent of wisecracks.
But the One on the Right, originally published in The New Yorker magazine, 19th October 1929
Available to read online here (search for page 86 of the document)
Given the style classification Interior Monologue by Moffett and McElheny: “In these first two stories somebody is speaking to himself, thinking. We merely overhear his thoughts. These stories are the equivalent of soliloquies in a theatre, except that a character thinking alone on stage would have to talk aloud so that the audience could hear his thoughts. Reading these stories is like listening to a soliloquy.” More on what makes an interior monologue when we come to the other short story listed under this category!
Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!
But the One on the Right
So short, it’s barely a story, more like a fictional article! Dorothy Parker is invited to dinner by a hostess; she clearly knows no one there and is seated next to a boring man on her left. He’s polite, answers her small talk directly, but with no sense of creativity or interest; and her brain gives a running commentary on the occasion. She’s stuck with the one on the left, but the one on the right is being engaged by another lady who bagsied him first, and, despite his attractive shoulders, Dorothy decides to play fair and not try to muscle in on the conversation. At the end, the man on the right reveals that he too finds the whole experience exasperating and surprises Dorothy with an inventive chat-up line.
If ever you’ve been invited to dinner with the intention of getting people who don’t know each other to get to know one another, you know how ghastly the experience can be. And Dorothy Parker nicely conveys that cliff edge of politeness and boredom, of doing what the host expects of you rather than doing what you really want to do. We can all appreciate the disaster that a dull dining partner can provide. It’s a fun twist at the end, when the man on the right is found to be having an equally awful time, and the two of them plan a getaway which might lead on to something more interesting.
Messrs Moffett and McElheny must have decided they wanted an extremely light hors d’oeuvre to start this anthology, and Dorothy Parker is always a reliably witty entertainer with her yarns and bon mots. “I should have stayed at home for dinner. I could have had something on a tray. The head of John the Baptist or something.” I love the phrase vin triste, (not sure if it was an invention of Parker’s but I’d never heard it before) which superbly describes what happens when you have too much of the former and it inevitably descends into the latter. Times change if Chablis was considered a rotten wine, as it is in this story; it’s rather classy nowadays. And I also enjoyed her few literary moments; saying that red wine gave her The Red Badge of Courage (Stephen Crane) or referring to the boring man on the left as “Boy Thoreau” – in an ironic nod to Henry Thoreau’s dense and packed narrative style.
Much as Dorothy Parker might have enjoyed (or endured) a wafer thin starter to her meal, so can we regard this four-page amuse bouche as a precursor to some more meaty fayre to come. The next short story in the book, and the other to be classified as an interior monologue, is This is my Living Room by Tom McAfee. I think this will be a very different kettle of fish.