Ginger Pinholster is a writer and fellow graduate of the MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte.
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“When you’re 18, they call it partying. When you’re 40, they call it, like, alcoholism.”
This truism, borrowed from a comedian whose name I can’t remember, seems lost on the “pale young man” at the center of Dorothy Parker’s iconic short story, You Were Perfectly Fine. Her slickly constructed piece—an extended joke conveyed entirely through dialogue—reflects Parker’s affection for wit and “wisecracking,” which she once described as “calisthenics with words.” The pithy comebacks and tongue-in-cheek one-liners in this story also seem tailor-made for stage or radio performances. Such theatrical elements are no surprise since Parker wrote screenplays and was married to the actor Alan Campbell.
You Were Perfectly Fine continues to be a model of tightly sewn comical fiction, and yet it seems—please don’t hate me for this—terribly dated and self-conscious, too. But then, it was released in 1929, nine years before Bill Wilson published Alcoholics Anonymous, which forever raised our awareness of addiction as a disease.
The predicament of Parker’s male lead in this story is, in fact, tragic: So hung-over he’s unable to crawl out of bed until 4 o’ clock in the afternoon, Peter is suffering from what’s clinically known as a “blackout,” a complete loss of memory caused by an alcoholic overdose. Meanwhile, Parker’s female lead, the “clear-eyed girl,” is taking advantage of Peter’s amnesia by downplaying his outrageous, friendship- and career-busting behavior, repeatedly telling him he was “perfectly fine.” As the details unfold, though, we learn the true meaning of “fine”—F*cked up, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional.
Peter’s situation reminds me of the classic Bill Cosby routine, in which he acts out “Having a Good Time.” In the skit, a nauseous alcoholic seeks comfort by resting his face against the cool porcelain side of a toilet. “Thank you, toilet bowl,” he says. “You’re the only friend I have.”
In Parker’s story, Peter’s scheming enabler reveals how he professed his love for her. “The trees were shining in the moonlight,” she tells him the next day, “and you said you never knew before you really had a soul …. I think maybe that taxi ride was the most important thing that ever happened to us in our lives.” One could argue, of course, as Eric Wyatt has done on this very blog that the girl is only rationalizing his behavior so as to “justify Peter’s confession of love for her.” As Eric pointed out, “the nice thing about this story is that it leaves room for some of these subtle discussions to take place.” But I think the description of a “clear-eyed girl” suggests she’s deliberately exploiting Peter’s binge to trick him into marriage.
You Were Perfectly Fine demonstrates Parker’s notoriously fastidious editing. Each word counts in this precisely crafted piece, which relies on a fundamental misunderstanding between two characters. The narrative leverages outlandish events and two repeated refrains: “Oh, dear, oh, dear, oh, dear,” and “you were perfectly fine” to generate momentum. Both refrains, beginning with the story’s title and ending with its final line, are repeated four times. Parker thus lulls her readers by establishing a predictable rhythm. Then she zings us with yet another astonishing detail of Peter’s antics. The girl’s droll recitation of Peter’s drunken deeds have a cumulative effect:
- “You poured the clam-juice down her back.”
- “You wouldn’t stop singing.”
- “You said [the waiter] was your long-lost brother, changed in the cradle by a gypsy band.”
- “You took a dislike to some old man with white hair … because you didn’t like his necktie.”
- “There was that nasty stretch of ice … and you did sit down awfully hard.”
- “You said such lovely, lovely things.”
Ah, yes, an alcoholic blackout and romantic entrapment probably seemed much funnier to pre-Depression Era readers of The New Yorker, where You Were Perfectly Fine originally appeared. We’re much more sensitive and sophisticated nowadays. We laugh uncontrollably at amateur videos of people falling head-first down the stairs or getting their privates clobbered.
With all this said, I should hasten to emphasize that Parker’s technical mastery is a given. As Belinda Nicoll wrote in 2010, “The real joyride of this short story … is the circuitous unfolding of the scope of the protagonist’s dilemma in a guarded conversation between the two main characters.” Parker (1893-1967) remains a pioneer of comic fiction.