Peter De Vries Essay - Critical Essays


“If I spent my time portraying life as it actually is,” Peter De Vries once remarked, “I think I would go insane with boredom inside of two weeks.” Eschewing the realistic novel, De Vries has instead concentrated on entertaining his readers with witty and humorous works, filled with hilarious but highly improbable incidents. He was satisfied to write a good comic novel without aiming for any higher artistic qualities. This self-acknowledged limitation has been the source of much of the unevenness in De Vries’ work, with the overemphasis on humor weakening the structure of his novels—often to the neglect of narrative continuity, consistent point of view, clear transitions, and strong characterizations. In fact, many of his novels are so seriously flawed as scarcely to be considered novels at all; rather, they are loosely constructed narratives that simply provide a framework for the author’s comic genius.

Beyond the purpose of sheer entertainment, De Vries was ambiguous about the intent of his humor, minimizing the social commentary and underlying seriousness of his work so that it is difficult to categorize him as a comic novelist of manners or a satirist. Like his mentor, James Thurber, De Vries chose to limit the scope of his humor and to evoke laughter through grotesque or absurd depictions of modern suburban life, but as his later novels suggest, he risked reducing his work to formulaic entertainment or, worse, self-parody. Stylistically, De Vries is not as original as Thurber, but he is perhaps at his best as a parodist of other writers, or as a writer of brilliant puns and epigrams rather than as the creator of a unified and coherent comic vision. His weakness as a comic novelist comes from his failure to unify his material and to offer an implicit corrective vision to the world he ridicules.

The Tunnel of Love

De Vries’ first three novels are of slight artistic value. His first novel of note, and still perhaps his most popular, is The Tunnel of Love. Here one enters the affluent world of Connecticut suburbia as seen through the eyes of the first-person narrator, a New York magazine cartoon editor much like De Vries himself. The focus of the novel, however, is on the comic imbroglios of his next-door neighbors, Augie and Isolde Poole, a young, well-to-do, “artistic” couple who try to adopt a child to save their marriage. The novel alternates between Manhattan and Avalon, Connecticut, through a round of weekend cocktail parties and dinners that provide a backdrop for De Vries’ wit and cleverness. De Vries peoples the book with a humorous collage of “artsy” types—would-be actresses and directors, abstract painters, mediocre illustrators, poets manqués, affected snobs, precious aesthetes, and other rarefied types. In short, one finds all the empty worldliness of “Vanity Fair,” which De Vries is quick to mimic and satirize, yet one also feels the narrator’s attraction to these values, which lends the novel a curiously mixed tone of admiration and ridicule. De Vries is a shrewd observer of suburban language and behavior, with a good ear for nuances of conversation, and he creates a wonderful satire of the pretentious cocktail chitchat about creativity and neuroses that the characters employ to boost their sagging egos and disguise from themselves the truth of their mediocrity.

The protagonist, Augie Poole, is a good gag writer though a poor cartoonist who cannot sell his work, so he turns to profligacy to salve his ego. A self-confessed “rotter,” he is never quite as wicked as he pretends to be. Superficially a glib and literate ladies’ man, he is basically shallow and conceited, though not beyond eventual redemption through the responsibilities of parenthood. The Pooles ironically adopt the illegitimate child of Augie and his artist mistress, but not before a comic series of mishaps during the adoption process. Augie is forced to compromise his “artistic integrity” and sells his gags without the cartoons to prove himself a responsible prospective parent with a steady income. Much of the humor is generated in the domestic life of the narrator, however, in a genial “battle of the sexes” with his wife and family. In conversations with his wife, the narrator of course defends Augie, while she defends Isolde, with predictable results.

In The Tunnel of Love, husbands and wives are torn between the routines of respectable suburban life and the allure of a self-indulgent and liberated “artistic” life, with its glamour and sophistication. De Vries contrasts the romantic myth of personal creativity and self-indulgence with the more staid world of middle-class marriage and commuter life. His characters enjoy all the luxuries of suburban affluence, yet they seem to yearn for a vague “something more”—a vicarious excitement missing from their lives and beckoning from the bohemian life or from the narrator’s vicarious dreamworld of “Moot Point,” a Hollywood fantasy-world of cinema clichés. The comedy is generated by the clash of illusion and reality as Augie and the narrator slowly learn to accept the world as it is; “Moot Point” is eventually replaced by “Drowsy Dell,” the summer cabin on a New Hampshire lake that both families enjoy.

The Mackerel Plaza

After De Vries’ commercial success with The Tunnel of Love, he adapted the novel for stage and screen, and the play ran for a year on Broadway. His fiction writing continued in the same comic vein with his next three novels, Comfort Me with Apples, The Mackerel Plaza, and The Tents of Wickedness. Once more he took aim at the hollow values and assumptions of modern suburbia, particularly the jargon of psychology and adjustment, though not necessarily to replace them with more traditional values, but simply to show their comic inadequacy. The protagonist of The Mackerel Plaza is a pompous, ultraliberal minister, the Reverend Andrew Mackerel, as rigid and narrow in his “advanced thinking” as the fundamentalists he opposes. His People’s Liberal Church, a nondenominational congregation, is the “first split-level church in America,” with a church clinic and psychiatric facilities designed to meet all the needs of modern humanity. Mackerel preaches short, iconoclastic sermons intended to demolish whatever remains of his parishioners’ traditional Christian beliefs, though he is the one who ultimately loses his faith in unbelief. A young widower, he is thwarted in his desire to marry an aspiring actress by the forces of New England respectability in his congregation and by an elderly parishioner’s desire to erect a memorial to his late wife.

None of the characters is really convincing in this book, and De Vries seems to play off orthodox beliefs against liberal Christianity merely for laughs, without either appearing credible. Mackerel loses his actor, Molly Calico, to a Romanian director and ends up marrying his own sister-in-law, Hester, a caricature...

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