“Getting Even”

This review was written by Stephen Amidon and printed in the December 11, 2006 issue of The Nation.

If you want to understand the astonishing darkness at the heart of Roald Dahl’s stories for adults, you would do well to look at his World War II service–not his well-documented role as an RAF pilot in the early days of the conflict but rather his less-heralded posting as an assistant air attaché at the British Embassy in Washington. It was here, far away from enemy fire, that the cynical worldview that informs Dahl’s adult fiction just might have been born. Serving alongside future advertising mogul David Ogilvy, Horatio Hornblower author C.S. Forester and philosopher Isaiah Berlin, Dahl found himself plunged into the sophisticated network of espionage, propaganda, blackmail and sexual intrigue the British used against their American allies to insure they stayed the course in the great struggle against fascism. The lesson was simple–even the best of friends were entitled to lie and cheat if the stakes were high enough.

The budding writer seems to have taken this lesson to heart, because it is difficult to think of another bestselling author who presents a more comprehensively pessimistic view of humanity than the one on display in these fifty-two tales of humiliation, betrayal and revenge. Of course, readers of Dahl’s children’s books will have caught plenty of glimpses of this darkness. For example, there is that sublimely subversive moment in The Witches when the narrator suggests that “your lovely school-teacher who is reading these words to you at this very moment” might be a grotesque, child-slaughtering witch in disguise. But in the children’s books this cynicism is always tempered by the presence of a wise grandparent, kindly giant or sly fox. No such relief is on offer in Dahl’s Collected Stories. Readers who like to take their humor black, without a sprinkle of diluting sweetness, will consume this book with immense satisfaction.

Due to its strict chronological arrangement, the collection opens with ten stories inspired by Dahl’s RAF piloting days, written either during or directly after the war. These are by far the book’s weakest entries, their pathos and propaganda only partially concealed by the tough-guy prose that often reads like it won honorable mention in a Hemingway imitation contest. Here is a brave young pilot’s reaction to being ordered out on a dangerous mission in “Death of an Old Old Man”: “The others were all sitting around eating their pudding; mine was still on my plate in front of me, and I couldn’t take another mouthful. But it was fine when I tightened my jaw muscles and said ‘Thank God for that. I’m tired of sitting around here picking my nose.’ It was certainly fine when I said that.” Pudding, indeed.

Dahl finally hits his stride with “Nunc Dimittis,” written in 1947 and marking the opening of the thirteen-year period that was to prove the most productive of his adult-fiction career. (The story’s title comes from the Book of Luke and basically means “I can go now, I have accomplished my life’s mission.”) In it, an amoral art collector takes revenge on the woman who jilted him by carefully orchestrating her humiliation at a posh dinner party, only to have her strike back with an even more decisive reprisal. This dark, perfectly balanced tale provides the template for much of what is to come. In Dahl’s stories, the core family values are not respect and love but torment and retribution. Intimacy doesn’t just breed contempt; it breeds contempt in action. This is particularly true when the topic is marriage. In the justly famous “William and Mary,” a woman suffers her husband’s petty tyranny for years, only to get her chance for payback when he arranges for his brain to be posthumously placed in a state of suspended animation. In “The Way Up to Heaven,” another downtrodden wife takes her revenge when her torturer/spouse gets stuck in an elevator in their six-story Manhattan mansion. In the deliriously funny “Neck,” a cuckolded husband named Sir Basil Turton is handed the opportunity to get even with his gold-digging, unfaithful wife after her head becomes stuck in one of their Henry Moore sculptures while she is frolicking with a lover. The story’s subtly wicked climax comes when the narrator watches Sir Basil’s butler, Jelks, who loathes Lady Turton for betraying his beloved master, arrive with two tools, one that will cleanly extract her, the other that will cause damage to more than just the sculpture:

Sir Basil took up a position close to his lady’s head, waiting for Jelks. Jelks advanced slowly, carrying a saw in one hand, an axe in the other, and he stopped maybe a yard away. Then he held out both implements in front of him so his master could choose, and there was a brief moment–no more than two or three seconds–of silence, and of waiting, and it just happened that I was watching Jelks at this time. I saw the hand that was carrying the axe come forward an extra fraction of an inch towards Sir Basil. It was so slight a movement it was barely noticeable–a tiny pushing forward of the hand, slow and secret, a little offer, a little coaxing offer that was accompanied perhaps by an infinitesimal lift of the eyebrow.

Besides their themes of betrayal and revenge, Dahl’s best stories also share a deeply traditional attitude toward narrative technique. Largely ignoring “developments” in storytelling, Dahl instead carried on the tradition of O. Henry and Saki, centering his story on the twist, the sting in the tail, the comeuppance. He also liberally employed the plot device of the bet to just about perfect effect–any writing teacher would do well to use Dahl’s “wager stories” to teach dramatic pacing. “Man from the South,” for example, features a bet between a wealthy South American exile and a US Navy sailor over whether the latter can ignite his lighter ten times in a row. The stakes soon spiral out of control as the rich man’s Cadillac is wagered against the little finger on the sailor’s left hand. In “Taste,” an apparently harmless bet about wine-tasting escalates to the point where a stockbroker stakes his teenage daughter against a food critic’s two houses. And in “Dip in the Pool,” a passenger on a cruise liner attempts to win the betting pool on the ship’s daily progress by flinging himself overboard in the hope that the boat will turn back to rescue him, and thereby enable his lowball bet to sweep in the winnings.

Dahl’s fiction for adults went into serious decline during the 1960s and never recovered. There are several reasons for this. The most obvious is the runaway success of James and the Giant Peach (1961) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory(1964), which cemented his reputation as a children’s writer. But there are artistic considerations as well. By this time, his old-school narrative methods and sick-joke ethos had dropped out of favor, leaving little room for him in magazines like The New Yorker and Harper’s. Also, explicit sex was now part of the authorial repertory, and Dahl’s misanthropic sneer proved unsettling when it came to depicting the frankly erotic. The aging artist was unable to get in tune with his times. In the four long stories he published in Playboy in the 1960s and ’70s (later collected in Switch Bitch), this most assured of writers seems completely out of his league as he moves from the realm of country estates and society parties to a brave new world of wife-swapping, rough trade and aphrodisiac colognes. This failure of authorial command is apparent in “The Great Switcheroo,” the story of two suburban men who arrange to sleep with each other’s wives without the women knowing. As the narrator looks out over the women at a cocktail party, he thinks he can see hidden lust and sensuality expressed in their mouths, though all Dahl can communicate to the reader is a sort of clinical ugliness:

It really does seem to be a fact, I told myself, as my eyes wandered from lower lip to lower lip across the room, that all the less attractive traits of the human animal, arrogance, rapacity, gluttony, lasciviousness, and the rest of them, are clearly signalled in the little carapace of scarlet skin. But you have to know the code. The protuberant or bulging lower lip is supposed to signify sensuality. But this is only half true in men and wholly untrue in women. In women, it is the thin line you should look for, the narrow blade with the sharply delineated bottom edge. And in the nymphomaniac there is a tiny just visible crest of skin at the top centre of the lower lip.

Samantha, my hostess, had that.

Look at the words he chooses–“carapace,” “protuberant,” “blade.” This is the language of the autopsy, the vivisection, not the erotic. “Bitch” proves equally dissonant. In it, a renegade perfumer invents a musklike scent that turns all men into rapists the moment they smell it. Although the narrator’s scheme to bring down the American President by applying it to the corsage of a stout grand dame as she greets him is quite funny, it is far more difficult to stomach the scene in which a young boxer rapes a lab assistant during a product test, much to her moist-eyed delight. The discomfort level rises even higher in “The Last Act,” one of the most unsettling accounts of sexual humiliation I have ever read. In it, a middle-aged woman named Anna falls into a deep depression after her husband’s accidental death. During a trip to Dallas, she looks up an old boyfriend named Conrad, who is now a successful divorced gynecologist. Although she threw him over for her husband decades earlier, Anna figures that the intervening years would have healed any wound. Conrad does indeed come on initially as the personification of charm, though he soon uses his medical knowledge to exact a revenge on Anna that is so brutal it is just about unreadable. As with “Bitch” and “Switcheroo,” the ugliness is now unrelieved by the buoyant wit on display in “Neck,” “Taste” and “William and Mary.” It is little wonder that this was the time when both Dahl and his readers turned their attention to childish things.

Despite its sour final sequence, one comes away from this generous collection with a deep admiration for Dahl’s narrative virtuosity and his pitch-black humor, but also with an understanding of why it is his books for children, and not his short story collections, that sell tens of millions of copies. In the former, the nasty is always offset by the humane, the dark by the light. For every Grand High Witch there is a Grandmamma; for every Miss Trunchbull there is a Miss Honey. No such relief is on offer in his adult fiction. Perhaps the clearest example of this comes in “Pig,” whose hero, a sweet-natured vegetarian orphan named Lexington, could easily have found his way into one of Dahl’s books for young readers, where he would have no doubt won the day. In the grown-up world, however, he winds up hanging upside down in an abattoir with blood running out of his slit throat. It is a position in which only readers who like their literary meat served bloody and rare would want to see their hero end.