I Live On Your Visits by Dorothy Parker, 1955
The magic trick:
Using jokes to describe a very sad situation
Parker was a master satirist. Those young New Yorkers of the ‘20s and ‘30s taking themselves far too seriously were ripe for her vicious wit. She wasn’t limited, though, to such sendups. Consider “I Live On Your Visits.” This is a totally different brand of comedy. Here the jokes are forced down your throat, almost desperately. It’s not that they’re not funny – the mother’s friend here says hilarious things. It’s just that they’re not nearly enough to distract the reader from the immense sadness at the heart of the story. At the heart of the story? That makes it sound like subtext. The sadness is not hiding. It’s right there at the surface. Very obviously. This is not a funny story with elements of sadness. This is an incredibly sad story that happens to have jokes. And that’s quite a trick on Parker’s part.
“Mme. Marah,” his mother said, “may I present my son?”
“Christ, he’s a big bastard, isn’t he?” the true friend said.
She was a fine one to talk about anybody’s being big. Had she risen, she would have stood shoulder against shoulder with him, and she must have outweighed him by sixty pounds. She was dressed in quantities of tweedlike stuff ornamented, surprisingly, with black sequins set on in patterns of little bunches of grapes. On her massive wrists were bands and chains of dull silver, from some of which hung amulets of discolored ivory, like rotted fangs. Over her head and neck was a sort of caul of crisscrossed mauve veiling, splattered with fuzzy black balls. The caul caused her no inconvenience. Puffs of smoke issued sporadically from behind it, and, though the veiling was crisp elsewhere, around the mouth it was of a marshy texture, where drink had passed through it.
His mother became the little girl again. “Isn’t he wonderful?” she said. “This is my baby. This is Crissy-wiss.”
“What is his name?” the true friend said.
“Why, Christopher, of course,” his mother said.
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