Peter De Vries Essay - De Vries, Peter (Vol. 1)

De Vries, Peter (Vol. 1)

De Vries, Peter 1910–

American comic novelist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)

There are in the DeVries corpus enough … puns, parodies, paradoxes, epigrams, repartee, and all-round verbal wizardry, if lifted from the story lines, to yield a collection that could become a best seller in itself.

Looking over the career of Peter De Vries, I think that the fifteen books he has written show that he has recognized the problem that wit poses for the novelist. With one outstanding exception, the wit has, in the main, decreased from book to book. The reader feels the jolt of the interjected wisecrack or pun less often in the later books. Just possibly, of course, the change may have coincided with changes in the evolving De Vries temperament, but given a sensitive writer such as he is, the change must have recommended itself to him as a more effective fictional technique.

Nevertheless, as part of the total reading experience,… one finds De Vries's wit too often a distraction. Even when it comes from the mouth or mind of a character, it is likely to sound like the author cutting in. And, again in a total view of a given work, the reader must sometimes conclude that the events are manipulated to serve as a showcase for wit instead of the wit's being a natural part of the story.

Whether De Vries intended the early novels as serious or not, the temper of his later work is in general more somber. Wit has undoubtedly been for him a way of coping with disappointments, agonies, and frustrations….

The principal male character in nearly all of the De Vries fiction tends to stereotype…. As author, De Vries fails to maintain sufficient distance from his story, tending to identify with his leading male character, who may be either the first-person narrator or a third-person point-of-view character. The portrait of such a protagonist, with a makeup given to arbitrariness in his actions, is often weakened by what must strike the reader as insufficient motivation and an incapacity to sustain a truly human relationship….

The structure of a De Vries fiction is simple and uncomplicated. Events are usually in chronological order, loosely organic or even episodic, and too frequently undermotivated….

Despite his basically humanist position, the social conscience of De Vries finds only tacit expression. Social agencies appear favorably in The Tunnel of Love, Comfort Me with Apples, The Blood of the Lamb, and The Cat's Pajamas and Witch's Milk. White prejudice against black people is neatly stilettoed by Alma Marvel (in Through the Fields of Clover): "That's the way it always is! Treat them as equals, and first thing you know that's how they're treating you."

But it is on the unceasing conflict between the sexes, in and out of the family, that De Vries's indictment of society principally rests. Of sex there is a great deal. It inspires numerous witticisms, a few of them bawdy, besides having generally disruptive effects on the lives of the characters. Sexual impulses drive the characters to marital infidelity, deception, quarrels, and alcoholic truth sessions, as well as occasional divorce. Of prurience or eroticism there is never a line…. Most of the marriages in De Vries do hang together but by the merest threads. De Vries would seem to be attacking weak and immoral attitudes and practices, not marriage and the family as such.

Louis Hasley, "The Hamlet of Peter De Vries: To Wit or Not to Wit" (© 1971 by the Duke University Press; reprinted by permission of the Publisher), in South Atlantic Quarterly, Autumn, 1971, pp. 468-76.