Book of the Mouth

On Elaine Dundy’s “The Old Man and Me”

by Tara Isabella Burton

There are likeable characters. There are unlikeable characters. And then there are characters so grandiloquently repulsive, so gleefully, selfishly voracious, that they make a mockery of the idea of likeability altogether. Such is the fast-talking (or pacily soliloquizing) Honey Flood, the all-American grifter, come to London’s Swinging Sixties Soho for reasons we the reader don’t immediately understand, and which she herself doesn’t quite have a handle on, and whose capacious desires serve as the combustible engine of Elaine Dundy’s The Old Man and Me. The book is a dark comedy that’s also one of the best I’ve ever read about erotic desire. Flood (we soon learn) has come to London with a mission seemingly out of a John Le Carré novel: to target, befriend, and ultimately murder a wealthy old Brit named C.D. McKee. In so doing she will have to maneuver her way through artists and aristocrats alike. Not that there’s any chance Flood could be an expert secret agent: it takes all her strength of will to keep her personality—and secret—from spilling out of her every chance she gets. But the mystery—why does Honey Flood (whom we soon learn isn’t named Honey Flood at all) want to kill this mysterious old man, and, more pressingly, why does it seem like she actually just wants to go to bed with him?—sustains The Old Man and Me’s irrepressibly rollicking plot.

For most of the book, we don’t know the specific plot-reason behind Honey Flood’s machinations, or what C.D. McKee has to do with any of them. But we do know Honey Flood. We know that she’s a livewire of desire, yearning for all those things —love, money, affirmation—she can never get enough of, and that she’s chasing an absent father and a vanished fortune as well as her own cossetted childhood. Her emotions have never quite transcended toddlerdom. “I thought I was doing so well,” Flood mourns, after one of her encounters with C.D.:

I thought I was charming the hell out of him. I thought I had him eating out of my hand. Well: I thought I was getting away with it. I might have known. There is always a catch. But suddenly I felt very very young, like a child. Suddenly I wanted to run to—God knows whom, maybe God Himself—why is there never a face I can put to whom I want to run?—and cry, ‘But I thought he liked me. All I want is to be liked.’ And then, thank heaven, cold rage and fury.

She’s a grown-up Eloise: throwing tantrums and causing chaos because she wants, more than anything, to be paid attention to by someone whose attention she deems worth something. And the erotic game she ends up playing with her old man—a burlesque of self-invention, the carefully-dropped anecdote, the manipulative pout inextricable from the performance of any first date—provides both parties with the attention they crave.

That Honey is American—that she is already seen by the snobbish English around her as crass and craven in her yearning—only adds to the intensity of her mission. Honey wants, noisily, what she can’t have, in a country where people like C.D. are accustomed to being glumly satisfied with their situation. (A late-book visit to an aristocratic garden party is among the novel’s funniest set pieces.)

It would be cliché to reduce the game at the heart of The Old Man and Me to a conflation of sex and death, and Dundy widely avoids such conflation. Instead, The Old Man and Me treats both sex, and the espionage-coded potential for death, as fundamentally a game: an opportunity for two people, one childish, one approaching a second childhood, to explore the multifarious terrain of human wanting: of approach and retreat, rejection and comfort, desires that may be consummated without ever being truly fulfilled. We are aware, perhaps earlier than Honey is, that she’s fallen for her target, that the hunger at the core of her is not for whatever mysterious benefit she gets from C.D.’s death but from some form of attention only he can provide. And, whatever C.D. thinks or knows about her mission—we’re never sure—it is her equally fixed attention on him that proves part of her charm.

Ultimately, as in all good quest-stories, Honey both gets and doesn’t get what she wants. But the attention she wrests from the reader, with a mixture of verve, charm, and sheer plot-twisty derangement, is absolute.

Book of the Mouth