"My Little Blue Dress" by Bruno Maddox

The touching memoir of a 100-year-old woman -- forged by a young media commentator at the end of his rope.

Published May 21, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

There's an elaborate trick going on in the pages of "My Little Blue Dress," and I'm going to tell you exactly what it is. I can't be accused of single-handedly spoiling the game, because the book's publisher has decided to reveal all on the book jacket anyway. I can see why, because I opened this novel without even glancing at the jacket or publicity material, and if it hadn't been for my sacred duty as a reviewer I might not have made it past the first 75 pages, after which it becomes hilariously clear what's going on. What starts out as the life story of a 100-year-old woman turns out to be written by a guy in his 20s named Bruno Maddox, who's given himself the task of forging the memoir in one frantic night.

As the night wears on, Bruno interrupts his ersatz memoir to insert pep-talking notes to himself, such as "fucking only ten hours left so TYPE LIKE THE WIND -- and also obviously like an incredibly old woman recalling her life in the 1930s." The woman turns out to be his decrepit, ailing, elderly next-door neighbor, whose name we never learn, and whom Bruno has been caring for since it became clear that she was practically immobile and unable to communicate.

At first, Bruno invents events to fill out her life. The result is an extravagantly silly, anachronism-filled parody of one of those precious "rural childhood" memoirs, with lots of asides to Reader and ingenious manic plot turns designed to help him avoid revealing his ignorance about historical events. (The woman spends World War II, for example, at a "top-secret" job at a remote military research facility that "insulated me utterly from the war.") It's also suspiciously full of lesbian frolicking, lolling on beds in "bra and panties" and sudden trips to Paris. As Bruno's sleep-deprived brain races ahead, he comes up with an idea that will make the memoir easier to write: "I think the least I can do is make this autobiography into a tribute to Bruno Maddox," whom the "narrator" has concluded is suffering from "Caregiver Syndrome."

The memoir-writing marathon has come at the end of a rough period for Bruno, and piecing together just what has happened to him is half the fun of "My Little Blue Dress." He's clearly struggling with the physical and emotional burden of caring for his neighbor: "I mean he's definitely going through some weird stuff lately, for which I am obviously to blame," he has her write. He's also wrestling with the internal demons brought up by his shallow, frenzied New York media career. (He is a regular on "Thirty UN!der Thirty," which features 30 opinionated, feisty young people from around the country weighing in on the day's issues, all inhabiting tiny boxes crowded onto the screen at once.) Then there's Hayley Iskender, a shockingly down-to-earth, straightforward girl despite her media job, who seems to be terrifyingly immune to the kinds of games that have previously allowed Bruno to shy away from relationships.

"My Little Blue Dress" is one of those "don't try this at home" literary experiments that could easily have turned into an unreadable, pretentious disaster. But Maddox, a one-time editor of Spy magazine, pulls it off with a kind of fearless pizzazz. His satire of the media world's social scene, refracted through the supposed consciousness of a 100-year-old woman, is priceless. "All his friends were sort of prominent media people," as Bruno describes one evening tagging along with his sole remaining pal. "There was some eighteen-year-old guy who just made a film about cripples. A guy who writes a column for Rogue magazine. Some actress. And that guy Gordon Gundersson ... a book author who has his own television commercial." Of course, this information is delivered to us in the form of the narrator's report of a conversation with Bruno, and somehow the idea of dishing the vicissitudes of social intercourse in trendy Manhattan bars with a semicomatose elderly woman is amusing, not offensive.

Strange to say, there's an emotional honesty in this book that no doubt wouldn't have been possible if Maddox had plunged head first into the serious issues that form its backdrop -- caring for elderly people, or finding meaningful relationships in a back-biting, fame-chasing world. When you finally do figure out the entire story behind Bruno's decision to forge the memoir (well, almost the entire thing -- there are some intriguing holes), you can't help being moved, and even a little sad that it may not work in the way Bruno hopes.

Our next pick: In Ethan Canin's latest, a wealthy, aging entrepreneur tries to correct a lifetime's mistakes

By Maria Russo

Maria Russo has been a writer and editor at The Los Angeles Times, The New York Observer and Salon, and is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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