By Michael Dirda
A few months back, the people behind the Man Booker Prize, Britain’s highest honor for fiction, decided that the late Beryl Bainbridge deserved a special award. When the much beloved writer died last year at age 77, tributes galore came from such notables as biographer Michael Holroyd and novelist A.N. Wilson, and most of them mentioned that Bainbridge had been nominated for the Booker on five occasions and never won. She was the perennial “Booker bridesmaid.”
So a contest was held: Which of Bainbridge’s titles deserved a posthumous award? The winner was “Master Georgie” (1998), an intricately structured short novel about a surgeon (and amateur photographer) in the Crimean War. It opens this way:
“I was twelve years old the first time Master Georgie ordered me to stand stock still and not blink. My head was on a level with the pillow and he had me rest my hand on Mr. Hardy’s shoulder; a finger-tip chill struck through the cloth of his white cotton shirt. It was a Saturday, the feast of the Assumption, and to stop my eyelids from fluttering I pretended God would strike me blind if I let them, which is why I ended up looking so startled. Mr. Hardy didn’t have to be told to keep still because he was dead.”
Now that’s what I call a hook.
Bainbridge wrote 17 novels, and “The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress” is the mysterious last, at once witty, engrossing and macabre. But then those words could describe almost all of Bainbridge’s work. In general, her novels — as compact as those of Ivy Compton-Burnett or Penelope Fitzgerald, both of whom she sometimes resembles — tend to divide into the loosely autobiographical and the more or less historical. For instance, “An Awfully Big Adventure,” about a second-rate troupe of English actors, took off from the young Bainbridge’s own theatrical experience (and became the basis for a superb film starring Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman). By contrast, “According to Queeney” focuses on Samuel Johnson’s relationship to Mrs. Thrale and “Every Man For Himself” on the doomed Titanic voyage. I first became aware of Bainbridge in 1978, when she brought out “Young Adolf,” a fictionalized account of the 23-year-old Hitler’s visit to Liverpool in 1912. That alone should give new readers some idea of her unsettling imagination.
In “The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress” a young Englishwoman named Rose arrives in a United States riven by civil unrest. It is 1968: The Vietnam War is escalating, Martin Luther King Jr. has recently been assassinated and violence seems endemic nationwide. Rose is in her mid-to-late 20s, works in a Liverpool dental office and has taken three weeks’ holiday to search for a mysterious Dr. Wheeler. While she was growing up, Wheeler had been something of a foster-father and wise counselor to her, and she feels a deep connection to him.
Her trip, though, is being financed by a middle-aged Washington Harold, who also wants to locate Wheeler for reasons of his own. Rose, he figures, will help lead him to the doctor, who may be working for some sort of political or intelligence organization. From the beginning, Harold is intent on making the almost penniless Rose feel a sense of obligation to him: “It would make her more compliant when the time came.” That sounds more than a little sinister.
Rose’s character is hard to read: At times she seems a total innocent, almost a period flower-child. She doesn’t like to bathe, wears the same shapeless raincoat all the time and often behaves like an extremely naive female Candide, wide-eyed in a strange and savage land. But there are darker sides to her character, too, and, when she wants to, she can effortlessly manipulate the people around her. She steals, regularly wheedles cigarettes from strangers, periodically recalls disturbing episodes from her childhood — including an illegitimate baby — and tells lies with blithe abandon:
“ ‘He was a great friend of the poet, Robert Lowell . . . You’ve heard of him?’
“ ‘Who hasn’t?’ said Rose.”
In structure, the novel traces Harold and Rose’s journey by camper from Baltimore and Washington to Southern California, the road trip being the traditional form through which foreign authors satirize American life: Think of such novels as Kafka’s “Amerika,” Nabokov’s “Lolita,”J.G. Ballard’s “Hello America.” In just 162 pages, Bainbridge’s odd couple attend a dinner party given by a Washington power couple; encounter a series of ominous characters who rant about religion, race and politics; are caught up in a bank hold-up; try to help a woman permanently addled by lysergic acid; hide the body of a murdered man; and meet a hypnotist who darkly claims to be able to control and manipulate anyone. Throughout, there are frequent allusions to horse-racing, love affairs gone wrong, suicide and the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where Dr. Wheeler may be staying, along with presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy and his campaign staff.
As is often with Bainbridge, the real joy of her book lies in its deadpan humor. Rose tells us, for instance, that “she wasn’t into wine; in her opinion it took far too long to make one feel cheerful” and that she had “spent most of her childhood crouched on the stairs listening to her parents calling each other names.” At one hotel, she drops in on a meeting of Theosophists:
“Rose took a seat at the back and then moved forward; she didn’t want to draw attention to herself by looking solitary. The proceedings began with a prayer to Him on High followed by a rendering of ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ sung without accompaniment by an elderly lady in a coal-black wig.”
Similarly grotesque scenes and characters recur throughout “The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress.” When Rose and Harold stop at a farm near Santa Ana, they meet a woman named Philopsona whose elderly mother “sat in a chair overlooking the fields, dressed in a nightie and a straw hat, clutching a woolly rabbit and the remains of a charred handbag.” Later, “Philopsona cooked them lunch, the ingredients home-grown, even the chicken. The birds, she trumpeted, were her pride and joy, each one with a name and fondled from birth. She never allowed anyone but herself to wring their necks. ‘It wouldn’t be right,’ she assured Rose. ‘They need somebody they can [expletive] trust!’ The one they were about to devour was called Nessie.”
In the end, “The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress” is strong on atmosphere, incident and wit, while remaining rather nebulous and tantalizing in its plot and resolution. So it’s not quite as fine a novel as those various Booker short-listed titles. Still, you’ll almost certainly enjoy Beryl Bainbridge’s dry humor and her book’s pervasive sense of menace. It’s an odd combination, but Bainbridge brings it off beautifully.