The Dinner Party—excerpted from a novel I’m working on, Nothing Doing—describes a nightmare dinner party, the kind we’ve all suffered through.
In this scene, longtime Manhattanite Grace calls her best friend, Kay, to describe the party—which was hosted by Grace’s mother-in-law, a well-known poet named Gwynne. Also attending: Grace’s daughter, Terri.
Ladies and gentlemen, dinner is served.
“Kay, darling, hope I’m not calling too late. Just got back from Gwynne’s party—a nightmare. May I vent?
“I always envy you at these gatherings, the way you negotiate the ebb and flow of everything with such apparent ease. As usual, I felt conspicuous by my presence, not that anyone took me seriously. They politely hear my views out, then continue as if I’m in another room. I suppose therapy has made me more assertive, but I don’t know what I’m asserting. I become a grimly smiling slug.
“I shudder when Gwynne brings me into a conversation, which means I’m not carrying my weight. All my pep talks ring hollow. I feel like a mousy librarian at a Christmas SAE fraternity dance.
“During a discussion of the heroine of Elaine Hubert’s new novel, the man next to me said—and I wrote this down when I went to the bathroom for the 10th time—‘She’s like a cross between Meryl in Mercy Mountain and Nadezdah in The Final Reckoning.’ I wanted to scream. And people are always doing something hard—reading Benedetto Croce in the original or memorizing favorite stanzas from some Icelandic epic.
“Terri was seated to the left of a Romanian novelist who kept peering down her dress, and after the first course, he lit a Camel, and no one said a word including Gwynne, as the smoke seeped out of his hairy nose and gave us all cancer.
“When the conversation turned to early women writers and someone mentioned Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Terri jumped right in with some perceptive observations, knowing Hurston’s work from college. My daughter fits in better at these gatherings than I do. Smart, self-possessed kids often seem arrogant and overbearing, but I don’t think people perceive her that way.
“What do the young think about this or that, Gwynne asked Terri throughout dinner, as she often does, which gave her a natural opening and authority. And Terri feels strongly about the kinds of issues Gwynne’s guests were interested in. She grabbed the spotlight.
“These affairs seem to get longer as Gwynne gets older—I guess they help keep her going. I hear dinner is served as the doctor will see you now. I’ve said everything over cocktails I can think of and await my punishment for being so ignorant.
“How many people have formal sit-down dinners any more, especially post-pandemic? I’d have a divine time if I were the only person present. We had asparagus soup, carrots almondine, wild rice, truffles, and crisp, tender quail bathed in a light brandy sauce. Dominique outdid himself as usual.
“Last night Gwynne held forth even more than usual, perhaps because of the presence of her horny guest of honor, and over the interminable course of the evening we touched on the New Theater in Czechoslovakia, the final subject of Henry James’ fiction—a dead kitten, an egg shell, and a bit of string, you stupid idiot—obscurantism in Philip Marcel’s roman-fleuve, Rudyard Kipling’s book for kids The Miracle of the Mountain, the film industry in Macedonia, euthanasia as a literary theme, and Italo Calvino’s lost sister. I felt like raising my hand to speak.
“The evening reached its lowest point when the Romanian launched drunkenly into a labored description of his most recent novella, about an injured skier who writes a hauntingly beautiful poem on her cast, but then the doctors mistakenly throw the cast away after it’s removed. So, although able to walk again, she becomes emotionally crippled by the loss of the poem.
“That led to a discussion of novels about bed-ridden protagonists, and I couldn’t think of any examples except the obvious The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Terri outshone me as usual by coming up with the wounded Owen Windner in The Sacrifice. And eventually we ended up doing fruit-related literary terms. After breathlessly throwing out pear-shaped tones, I was quickly eclipsed by everybody there, and I retreated back into my mole hole. I don’t eat dinner, I flunk it.
“You say Gwynne’s looking frail. I laugh. In a recent dream, even though confined to a wheelchair—nearly deaf, half-blind—she beats me at tennis in straight sets.
“Have you read Jeremy Nicholson’s Once Upon a Time, Gwynne asked me, and I responded yes, although I have no idea who Jeremy Nicholson is.
“’A good read,’ I said, ‘Despite the obvious shortcomings.’ I lie all the time. I rarely admit I haven’t read the book under discussion—I sometimes adopt the minority view just to prove I have opinions.
“Gwynne invariably seats me facing the mirror, so I get to watch myself squirm all night.
“Another subject we delved into was the decadence of post-minimalism, particularly as reflected in the work of Enrique Mansbach. I don’t know what minimalism is, much less the post period, but I remarked that the decay reached its nadir with Mansbach’s final book, having no clue what I’d said.
“I do a lot of nodding and saying things like ‘It’s all too true, isn’t it,’ and ‘Who knows what he might have written had he lived longer,’ and ‘What a remarkably creative spurt that was,’ and ‘You wonder what demons drove him to drink,’ inane, generalized remarks that have absolutely no content to them but that no one could possibly take exception to. Flabby little inserts that help keep me alive.
“You keep telling me Gwynne’s mellowed, but I see no indication of it. I become a stuttering nincompoop when she turns those scary, laser-beam, milky eyes on me, and the trifocals only make it worse, as if I’m confronting eight or nine fragmented versions of her, each finding fault with different aspects of me.
“And I hate that acknowledging, nodding thing she does when you’re talking, which translated means your contribution will be dutifully entertained before we move on to more substantive matters.
“You call Gwynne a grande dame, but I think she’s an imperious snob. Thanks. Are you still there?”
Robert Strozier’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in numerous publications including Atlantic, Esquire, The New Times Magazine, and The NYT Book Review. He’s had plays produced in NYC, and a musical he wrote (book and lyrics) has had five concert readings. He also helped launch five national magazines, then served as Editor-in-Chief of two and a senior editor at the others.