Peter De Vries Essay - De Vries, Peter (Vol. 3)

De Vries, Peter (Vol. 3)

De Vries, Peter 1910–

De Vries is a widely-acclaimed American comic novelist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)

No great expertise in the sociology of literature is needed to explain why the novels of Peter De Vries have never won the critical acclaim accorded to such of his compatriots as, to name a few, Saul Bellow, Joseph Heller, Mary McCarthy, James Baldwin, Philip Roth and John Barth. He has, after all, everything against him, being male, white, heterosexual, Gentile, prolific, easy to read, not obscure, versatile and very, very funny. An author may get away with being one or two of these things, but if you are all of them at once, then you may safely be said to have dished your chances. Ask not for whom Nobel tolls; it's not for thee.

Thus it is that the novels of Peter De Vries, in this country at any rate, receive brief (though usually fairly laudatory) reviews, and an academic attention that is even less hospitable than the journalistic. Which is not as it should be, seeing that he has produced a dozen novels and not a dud among them. Certainly he has faults, glaring ones, particularly a bad habit of self-plagiarism and an unfortunate tendency to capsulated nuggets of wisdom of a kind normally associated with calendars, wall mottoes and column-fillers in the Reader's Digest. But even a novel like … Into Your Tent I'll Creep, which is far from being his best, is consistently entertaining, contains some extremely funny moments and a vivid picture of modern marital and extra-marital conduct, and—unless there's a sharp change in form—is bound to be among the best few novels published here in 1972 (if that is not damning with faint praise). And when De Vries is at his best, which is in Reuben, Reuben in particular, he puts himself among the tiny handful of living writers worthy to follow the century's masters of comic writing from Max Beerbohm and Evelyn Waugh to Flann O'Brien and James Thurber.

"The Custard-Pie's Last Stand," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), July 28, 1972, p. 864.

[If De Vries] has ignored the Absurdists' call for self-aggrandizement, he still shares their major premises: the sense of alienation. As a humorous novelist—if he will accept the paradox as a small repayment for so many glittering ones of his own—De Vries would be lost without the sense of alienation. A great deal of what is funniest in his books comes from his heroes' Machiavellian drive to ingratiate themselves with the sorry world around them. Stew Smackenfelt of "Forever Panting" recapitulates in his own miserable career a majority of the handicaps already settled on a whole line of predecessors. He is Dutch, the humiliations of his boyhood in Chicago still rile him, he is a domestic misfit and professional nonentity; he is also a casualty of the partisan war between hedonism and guilt….

His failure as a wife-swapper is the backbone of the plot of "Forever Panting," which is not, to be frank, one of De Vries's better-made ones; parts of it seem tacked on haphazardly, without concern for their unification with the main intrigue. Still, the novel has decisive virtues. Smackenfelt is an admirably desperate specimen of De Vries man, without an identity to call his own. He is an actor, currently playing Father Plight, a "tormented cleric"; he handles the part better off-stage than on, peddling misguided spiritual comfort in an automat between shows with an élan clearly absent from his paid performance….

Smackenfelt ultimately achieves, in a properly ludicrous way, the modicum of integration he deserves. He is relieved if not cured, which is some reward for having to suffer so much damning self-knowledge along the way. "Forever Panting" is rich as ever in those feline insights of De Vries into human motive. Smackenfelt knows more than is good for him of the speculative laws of the psyche….

De Vries's humor is most distinctive and engaging when paradoxical. He is unbeatable at contriving situations, and not such far-fetched ones as all that, where our values are perfectly upended: who but a De Vries hero (Joe Sandwich in "The Vale of Laughter") could scale such a pinnacle of casuistry as to defend the honor of another man's wife by sleeping with her? And always in support are those deft little clockwork anecdotes: about the man who caught his death of cold from a faith healer, or the yoga fan who had to be hospitalized locked in the lotus position….

De Vries is a joy to read because he gives us not only superior jokes and superior comic routines but also badly mixed-up jokers; his humor comes with a theory of humor built in, and for once the theory is as diverting as the examples. Such preoccupations may make for sameness from book to book but it is a sameness anyone in his wrong mind should relish. De Vries is both entertainingly predictable and predictably entertaining.

John Sturrock, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 13, 1973, pp. 5-6.

De Vries never misses, his comedy is unfailingly exact because he is so accurate an observer of the human animal. His wit is Elizabethan, a combination of understanding, intelligence and humor. It is easy to say he is our funniest writer, but he is also one of our most civilized minds.

Paul Theroux, "The Blodgett Did It," in Book World (© The Washington Post), May 20, 1973, p. 2.

Anyone who reads Peter De Vries lazily is a masochist. His purest gems—few humorists have produced purer—are murmured asides, whispers down the wind. Or, sometimes, strobic flashes—blink and you've missed them. Later it may occur to you that something brilliant and oddball has just passed by.

De Vries performs this "you almost saw it, now you don't" trick by allowing absurd truth to flash fleetingly out of polite convention, the clincher to pop within the cliché: "She had a son who was sixteen and beginning to think about boys." It's as though Dali were a subtle genius and you'd almost walked on past the painting before realizing that the watch was beginning to melt imperceptibly along one finely painted edge.

Forever Panting is Peter De Vries's fifteenth book, of which thirteen are novels and one a volume of novellas. From his first novel, The Tunnel of Love, through this newest one, he has maintained a consistency of comedy that places him, in my judgment, among the very best contemporary humorists. (Frame of personal preference: Thurber's My Life and Hard Times is unsurpassed in modern American comedy.) De Vries's comic arsenal is filled with varied weaponry. He is a brilliant parodist, which may make The Tents of Wickedness and Mrs. Wallop among the giddiest heights he's touched. He is a devastating social commentator, and the areas devastated in Forever Panting include not only such milk runs as suburbia, marriage, and TV commercials but also such further out targets as modern art, the theater, corporate computerland and superpatriotism. He is an accomplished and offbeat punster. One of his characters calls another a pseudomasochist, still another terms himself a seersucker—a fool for clairvoyants. His ear unfailingly catches every cliché that deserves twisting. The hero's mother-in-law (she's really his aunt by marriage except when she becomes his wife) is a charming, fortyish, addlepated sex object who never fails to say what she doesn't quite mean: "Italians can be full of the old blarney," "Eating between snacks again!" She also thinks a sodomite is some kind of mineral and an English major one of Her Majesty's officers….

De Vries is an uncommon carrier of deadly, witty complexities—it would be necessary to explain how an unmolested house logically comes to appear vandalized; how Stew, who was raised in the Dutch Reform church, happens to be wearing Roman clericals in the presence of a troubled woman needing pastoral, if not divine, guidance; and how Stew discovers the built-in corporate principle by which an employee can safely and surely fire the bosses.

In De Vries's hands, communication among characters becomes misunderstanding, and misunderstanding swells into dilemma—usually in the twinkling of an absurd good intention. But the communication between De Vries and his readers remains clear and constant. Together they observe the growing madness. Together they realize that they alone are sane.

Alan Green, "The Giddy Heights of Humor," in World (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), July 17, 1973, p. 39.