Dawn Powell’s The Wicked Pavilion is many things: a novel of place (New York); a novel of manners – cafe manners; a novel of social strata; a commentary on the world of art; a novel on the politics of family. Some of the subject matter may seem a bit dated, but Powell’s treatment was ahead of her time. Her satirical eye is second to none. This is a serious and funny book.
Most of the novel takes place at the Cafe Julien, a fictional Greenwich Village watering hole. Be there or be square. The conversations between artists, writers, and art collectors are full of bright wit, a Powell trademark. Intricately plotted, the threads that pull these people together and pull them apart are marvelous. Rick Prescott and Ellenora are star-crossed lovers who never quite are on the same page at the same time. Destiny and fate are funny things.
The three painters (Dalzell, Ben and Marius) are compatriots and rivals – all struggling to make a living. When Marius has a serious car accident in Mexico, he takes the opportunity to fake his own death. From that point on, his paintings are suddenly worth quite a lot. Even to his fellow painters who figure they can make some dough from faking a few “lost” Marius’. There is a terrific party scene that was ostensibly a memorial of sorts for Marius, but falls apart through old grudges, bickering and boorishness. For one of the painters (Dalzell Sloane), he wonders at the paths he took and the paths that Marius took.
…there were always two paths, and if you stood long enough at the crossroads, one of them proved impassable. There were always two women, but one of them wouldn’t have you or one of them kidnapped you. There were two careers but at the crucial moment one of them dropped out, something happened, somebody made an appointment, and there you were. For Dalzell, destiny had shaped itself only through his hesitation.
But it’s the relationship between Elsie Hookley and her young protegé Ms. Jerry Dulaine, that form the most ambitious part of the book. Elsie is the black sheep of her family (but she likes it that way). A divorcee (from a European Baron), she’s in constant battle with her stuffed shirt brother. Among other things, this thread contains some serious Boston bashing.
Elsie was an escaped Bostonian, in perpetual and futile flight from everything that city represented, as obsessed with it as any excommunicated Catholic with the Vatican. She derided her brother Wharton for being a proper Bostonian, horrified by the democratic waywardness of his sister, and she chose to fancy herself voluntary renegade instead of involuntary exile.
But Elsie is just getting started, and goes on this rant:
“Boston is supposed to be the center of culture, but there’s no place on earth where money is so much worshipped…In Boston a family is supposed to be distinguished if some scalawag ancestor socked away enough loot to keep the next five generations in feeble-minded homes and keep their lawyers in yachts. Nobody’s ever read a book in Boston, they just have libraries. Nobody likes paintings, they just buy them….I tell you in Boston the word “ignorance” just means no money in the family.”
Ouch! The great irony of Wharton’s life is that his wife Nita was a sort of ‘work in progress’ for him. Now though, things have changed. From the “safety of Nita’s childish innocence” to her far surpassing him in wit and style.
In “the telephone date”, Rick and Jerry parry with some great dialogue that seems right out of Dashiell Hammett, Rick says
“I’m damn sick of it.”
“I’m sick of everything myself,” Jerry said. “I was trying to get rid of the last guest so I could put my head in the oven”
“Could I help?” Rich asked. “Just show me the oven.”
“It would have to be the pressure cooker,” Jerry said. “Mostly I was considering pills, being a lazy girl. Then I rather hoped you’d turn out to be the killer type and save me the trouble.”
“No, I’m just as lazy as you are,” Rick confessed…
“I wouldn’t want to mess up such a pretty room,” he said.
“Oh, it’s not paid for…
When the two of them go out on the town, to some dives, they get separated. It’s at one of these clubs that Jerry finds her original NY roommate. They had gone their separate ways, but now it’s obvious that Tessie is down on her luck. They get very drunk and there is a police raid. In a surreal scene, Jerry finds herself in a drunk tank/mental ward, arrested with all the other “known suspects”, on suspicion of prostitution. When it gets all sorted out, Jerry utters this at the end of Part One,
“I can’t get over the doctor taking me for a prostitute”.
The irony is, she’s dangerously close to that path already – more than she knows. The novel ends as it began, with a scene of the Cafe Julien, but now the glory days have passed, the building sold for a construction project (today, this would be a condo project). The time-place that Powell wrote about, is passing as well.
The Wicked Pavilion is “wicked funny” and thoroughly insightful. Structured perfectly, with memorable characters. I loved it.