In the course of her immortal essay "The Short Story, Through a Couple of the Ages," Dorothy Parker demolished half a dozen popular genres with some brilliantly funny imaginary first lines. Along with stories beginning "'Ho, Felipe, my horse, and pronto!'" Parker admitted, she "was always unable to do anything" with the sort of story that begins "Everyone in Our Village loved to go by Granny Wilkins' cottage ..."
Dawn Powell is customarily compared to Dorothy Parker. Diana Trilling said that Powell was the "answer to the old question 'Who really makes the jokes that Dorothy Parker gets the credit for?'" This comparison has turned into an automatic response on the rare occasions that Powell's name comes up. But anyone who reads Powell from beginning to end will find an inexplicably strange oeuvre—as if Parker had from time to time actually retreated from the highballs and the wisecracks and the Algonquin Hotel and written half a dozen novels in the purest Granny Wilkins vein.
Powell's novels fall into two groups so utterly unalike that it is hard to believe the books were written by the same person. In the fifteen novels she wrote from 1922 to 1962, two worlds, two entirely different ways of thinking and feeling, emerge. She is more celebrated, perhaps, for her New York novels: elaborately plotted, cynical comedies of bohemian life such as Turn, Magic Wheel (1936); The Happy Island (1938); and Angels on Toast (1940). They are exquisitely judged and timed celebrations of intoxication and poison, in which malice, ruthless ambition, or a fascinatingly odd sexual preference has a tendency to creep out after one late-night bourbon too many. Her drunk scenes (and it is tempting, in recollection, to think that the New York novels consist of almost nothing but drunk scenes) look like dispatches from a time between Prohibition and Jane Fonda, when America was not puritan, when excess could be celebrated, when intoxication was funny.