De Vries, Peter (Vol. 28)
Peter De Vries 1910–
American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
De Vries is one of America's best comic writers. His work provides the reader with a critical view of modern society. De Vries's main themes—marriage, love, religion, and conformity—are explored in darkly humorous ways. Using a combination of puns, parodies, epigrams, and burlesques, he shows modern men and women to be both absurd and strangely brave in their endless struggle to make sense of their lives and the confusing, unpredictable world that surrounds them.
De Vries is unconcerned with complex characterizations, relying instead on character types and incident. His protagonists are usually middle or upper middle-class young men from strict religious families who embark on a quest for the "real" self as marriage, family, and careers close in on them. These men reject the faith of their parents, avoid or abandon marriage, and often seek meaning in wild illusions and promiscuous sex. Most of them, however, revert to "normalcy." They become, if not formally religious, then humanistically agnostic, and they return to their wives or resolve to marry. Convention and conformity, De Vries seems to say, allow us to survive the chaos of modern life even as they limit and inhibit us.
While lacking the depth and sophistication of his later works, De Vries's early novels, But Who Wakes the Bugler? (1940), The Handsome Heart (1943), and Angels Can't Do Better (1944), introduce the themes and characterizations that recur throughout the rest of his work. In The Tunnel of Love (1954), Comfort Me with Apples (1956), and The Mackerel Plaza (1958), De Vries's "verbal wizardry," keen sense of life's ironies, and shrewd social observations are effectively and enjoyably combined. These three novels are among De Vries's best known and most acclaimed works.
With The Cat's Pajamas (1968) and many of the novels that follow it, a strain of cynicism and black humor not previously evident appears in De Vries's work. In general, critics found these books less successful than the earlier work, but most admired De Vries's skill in manipulating language to comic effect. Consenting Adults (1980), Sauce for the Goose (1982), and Slouching towards Kalamazoo (1983) are more optimistic and lightly humorous. In these works, De Vries seems again willing to accept and even relish life in spite of its darker sides and inexplicability.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 7, 10; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1982.)
QUESTION: Is it possible to cram into a novel every joke the theme and plot will allow, then add a couple of hundred more for good measure, and still maintain, from first page to last, a graceful, elegant and, above all, seemingly effortless prose style? ANSWER: Absolutely—but probably only if you're Peter De Vries. And in his latest comedy ["Consenting Adults: Or, The Duchess Will Be Furious"] Mr. De Vries once again demonstrates his unique ability to blend a motley array of absurd aphorisms, one-sentence character sketches, running gags, cosmological musings and inspired word games into a coherent—well, almost coherent—and hugely enjoyable book.
The narrator of "Consenting Adults" is Ted Peachum, the youthful product of a Pocock, Ill., furniture-moving family who, in his ambition to rise above his station, studies nihilist philosophy, discovers that everything he's "been so glibly spouting may very well be true" and promptly suffers a nervous collapse. Fortunately, Burwash, the "highly advanced" college Peachum chose when he failed to get into Harvard, allows him to take full academic credit for his crack-up, with the simple provision that he document the experience "to the satisfaction of the Psychology and English departments." Despite a B + on his breakdown, Peachum soon decides that the pleasures of the flesh offer the only escape from his overwhelming feelings of nonexistence, and it is with his resulting picaresque...
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T. Jeff Evans
Tunnel of Love  uses most of the components of the enduring De Vries pattern: the world is suburbia, USA, and its characters the middle or upper-middle class who are materially advanced but are psychically and comically somewhat in arrears. Here, he introduced marriage—its demands and the flights from it—as one of his central subject matters; as well, De Vries discovers his comic narrator, who so often ostensibly observes the bizarre antics of his fellows but then finds himself gradually drawn into the events and a chagrining self-discovery and revelation….
Tunnel of Love is early, vintage De Vries and was followed in quick succession by a series of adept comic novels with alternating shades of darker tragicomedy. In Comfort Me With Apples (1956) and Tents of Wickedness (1959), he unwinds the complicated affairs of Chick Swallow, who, feeling confined and repressed by marriage, is drawn to the seeming comforts of adultery and role-playing. Typically, the overall movement of De Vries' novels is first a reaction against and then a comic acceptance of the adult community of marriage, and Swallow ends the second book by refusing the tempting offer of a tryst with an old girlfriend, "Thanks just the same … but I don't want any pleasures interfering with my happiness." Tents of Wickedness interests by its style, too: each chapter is a technical tour de force, written in the style of one or...
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Kingsley Amis once remarked of Peter De Vries: "I would rate him the funniest serious writer on either side of the Atlantic." De Vries's humour derives not just from his remarkable capacity for word play, but from his ability to invent situations that invert the natural order of things…. De Vries's puns are ingenious enough to justify the elaborate situations often needed to set them up: in an early novel, for example, he has someone throwing stones at seabirds in order that, on being asked what he is doing, he can remark "I'm leaving no tern unstoned" Some of De Vries's aphorisms are worthy of Oscar Wilde, and his characters are never short of repartee. The ultramodern young clergyman of Mackerel Plaza is caught staring at a girl's legs; "Stop looking at my legs", she says, to which he replies "Don't worry, ma'am, my thoughts were on higher things". Of twentieth-century novelists, only P. G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh have De Vries's capacity to make the reader laugh out loud.
De Vries is also a serious satirist of the American way of life, having savaged, among others, clergymen who rely on Madison Avenue methods to enlarge their flocks, psychiatrists whose treatments change the form but not the quality of their patients' madness, and artists for whom the novelty of a gimmick makes up for its lack of meaning. He gently exposes middle class snobbery and acquisitiveness, but sympathizes with the dreams of youth that end in...
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"Sauce for the Goose" establishes once again that even a weak Peter De Vries novel is fun to read. Many of Mr. De Vries's major faults are brought into sharp focus in his latest comedy of manners for our troubled times. The plotting, something that has never been close to his heart, is unusually skimpy: A feminist writer, seeking to write an exposé of sexual harassment in the business world, falls into traditional love with the boss and they get married. Mr. De Vries uses such a light satiric pen in spinning out this contemporary fairy tale that it is sometimes difficult to know exactly what it is he is making fun of. Women's Lib would seem an inviting-enough target, but Mr. De Vries is so gentlemanly that his thrusts have little effect. What might have been an ironic view of feminism is often no more than a pedestrian story of some women who are not very good at their jobs.
Although often a genuinely witty author, Mr. De Vries sometimes reaches too far for funny lines in "Sauce for the Goose." I myself am prepared to go to almost any lengths to get a laugh, but it seems to me that a malaprop black cleaning lady who describes a woman dressed in mannish tweeds as "one dem 'lezibethians" is really the sort of comic characterization that should be stored away wherever it is they keep old "Amos 'n' Andy" scripts. But you can't stay irritated with Peter De Vries for long. If you don't like the page you are reading at the moment, stick...
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Peter De Vries's old habit, sustained through twenty novels, of larding his narrative with mots, wisecracks, and malapropisms has been regarded by some as a vitiation of an art comic enough without external embellishments. And it is true that he gives us the impression of storing nuggets or nugacities until he has enough to decorate a book; then comes the secondary task of deciding what the book shall be about. But he has made the technique his own—a mixture of social comedy and vaude-ville—and for him it works. Take the ending of [Sauce for the Goose]. There is a party, and a man we have not met before and will never meet again says, "I don't for the life of me understand why people keep insisting marriage is doomed. All five of mine worked out."
There are not only cracks; there are supererogatory situations inserted just for laughs and the hell with the structure. In Grand Rapids, where a Babylonian "New Ferment" swirls, there is the annual Meatloaf Writers Conference and also street theater. A couple of actors sit in rocking chairs, the woman reading Dorian Gray and the man The Skin of Our Teeth. She says, "You've driven me Wilde," and he, "You've driven me Wilder."
Seriously, though, there is an admirable story going on under the coruscations. (p. 63)
Dirk Dolfin, one of the ten best-dressed men, who has his entire wardrobe gutted by Vandalic breakers-in, is an...
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"She would be sitting at the window, eating fruit out of the hubcap." That's the kind of sentence you run across in a Peter De Vries novel—if one can give that name to an extended prose work that has no plot (just situations) and no characterizations (just tics and funny lines). De Vries's books are like giant towers of nougat—agglutinations of puns, metaphors, literary allusions, old songs, snapshots of people behaving, by their lights, in a perfectly reasonable manner. On this page, you hit on a tasty bit with a soft liquid center; on another, you chip off a piece of your mind. (p. 38)
For De Vries, a story is just an excuse to pour on the jokes, lots of thick sauce over a little bit of meat. But most of the jokes are pretty good….
[In Sauce for the Goose De Vries occasionally] bruises our ribs with his elbow (I got the one about Domblémy the first time, I got it, I got it), and some of his conceits reach so far they're stretched out of shape, but most of them hit home. Even better than his fancy dancing like such little tricks as backward sentences, discontented descriptions (a restaurant table "the size of a throat lozenge"), and well-designed fretwork ("Men could be so illegible," Daisy sighs). This crazy quilt of rhetoric and randiness, language and ladies turned upside down, is stitched together with De Vries's comic despair. "The episode had offered a fitting accompaniment to the sense of...
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[Peter De Vries] has been taking his cuts in the batting cage for quite a spell now, turning out twenty books of fiction in the last four decades. But a writer—particularly a comic writer—who's unflamboyantly industrious and accomplished runs the risk of being taken for granted, and the release of a new De Vries has never been taken as occasion for carting out the pastries. Yet De Vries's work may very well outlast that of his noisier contemporaries. In an essay on P. G. Wodehouse, Wilfrid Sheed observed that Wodehouse's whimsical creations "have the sturdiness of Japanese No theater, while Thomas Wolfe's 'feelings' expire like a scream."
De Vries's novels aren't as neatly plotted as Wodehouse's, and his range of follies is smaller …, but his best novels too have a well-hammered sturdiness, and may be standing long after the more fashionable funks of John Irving and Joseph Heller splinter like matchsticks. (p. 61)
The true comedy in De Vries's novels is that his characters flit so far out of themselves that [their] scissoring of consciousness into Commentator, Performer, and Spectator leads to a mad, dizzying tangle. Personalities are slipped on and off like dimestore disguises. In Madder Music, the protagonist roams the grounds of a sanitarium in a Groucho Marx slouch, peppering the staff with puns and sallies …: in Forever Panting, the protagonist uses his spare time to polish up his...
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It goes without saying that Peter De Vries is terrifically amusing in this, his 21st work of fiction. As in many of his recent books, he tells in Slouching Towards Kalamazoo the instructive tale of a young person from the heartland who encounters the sexual revolution in all its baffling glory and who pays the price for its pleasures: "What a mess! What a shambles I had made of my life just for an ankle down the old primrose path!" It is a tale of innocence and carnality, a mix both explosive and hilarious, and the wily De Vries milks it for every available laugh; but it is also a tale of sober and sobering aspects, and these too De Vries explores with characteristic subtlety.
The innocent of the tale is Anthony Thrasher, a.k.a. Tony, a.k.a. Biff, who as the story begins is a 15-year-old eighth grader, a classic and chronic underachiever, residing in "my North Dakota home town, which I will call Ulalume." His teacher, Miss Maggie Doubloon, is a luscious peach soon to turn 30, in whom "I seemed to sense a burning wish to Live, certainly to enjoy a life far richer than she was now, a self-realization for which getting the hell out of Ulalume would be only the beginning." As part of her curriculum Miss Doubloon decides to teach The Scarlet Letter, and soon enough she goes ahead and lives it. As a consequence of a one-night stand she enjoys with Tony while tutoring him in history and biology she becomes pregnant; with that,...
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"I seem to bear my share of responsibility, for the chuckles and chortles, all of them naturally nervous and not a few hideously forced, that went around our dinner table." This admission by Anthony Thrasher, the narrator-hero of "Slouching Towards Kalamazoo," could well be mistaken as an authorial plea for indulgence on the part of Peter De Vries. When not "hideously forced," most of his jokes seem silly or simply pointless. Still, in a novel that is devoid of believable characters, compelling narrative and moral resonance, the jokes are probably the best thing to be had.
Certainly, Mr. De Vries is capable of more. Though critical comparisons to the likes of P. G. Wodehouse, Max Beerbohm and Evelyn Waugh have always been overdrawn—his apotheosis is perhaps a reflection of how impoverished American humor truly is—Mr. De Vries has proved, in the past, that he can be a masterly entertainer and social satirist, acutely observant of how our edifice of morals has slowly crumbled and decayed. His sensitivity to language and its inflections has made him a gifted parodist, and at his best, he uses his wacky, compulsive humor to illuminate our vanities and pretensions.
Instead of developing as a novelist, however, Mr. De Vries has continued, over the years, to produce novels that are remarkably the same: most of them feature narrator-heroes—much like Anthony Thrasher—who suffer from a conflict between their...
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["Slouching Towards Kalamazoo"] is vintage De Vries, a perfect example of the sort of hilarious and expertly crafted comic novel that he amazingly seems to be able to turn out annually. "Don't you think the important thing when you're freezing to death is to keep your cool?" asks Mr. De Vries's hero near the beginning of the novel, and you immediately know that you are cheerfully once again in the hands of America's master of comic wordplay.
The time of "Slouching Towards Kalamazoo" is the early 1960's, shortly before the onset of the sexual revolution and other major American upheavals, and the place is an unnamed North Dakota town that the novel's off-the-wall first-person narrator, a 15-year-old junior high school student named Anthony Thrasher, chooses to refer to as Ulalume. Young Anthony, who is spending his second year in the eighth grade, is an academic underachiever if there ever was one. But he is no dope. Like most of Mr. De Vries's heroes, he has a paradoxical problem—Anthony spends all of his time reading Joyce, Eliot, Dylan Thomas and other literary masters on the sly when he should instead be memorizing the chief products of Venezuela. And so it appears that he is never going to get out of the eighth grade, much less ever make it to college. Anthony is turned over for private tutoring to his eighth-grade teacher, Miss Maggie Doubloon, a 29-year-old free spirit who has shocked the local townsfolk by assigning "The...
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J. H. Bowden
[But Who Wakes the Bugler?, De Vries's first published novel,] has a certain charm as a product of its time. And it is dated: not only is there a stage Negro, Jubal, who speaks in a thick dialect, but it's the man—Mr. Thwing—not his fiancée Hermina, who can't face up to matrimony. Now it's women who fear stifling. (p. 11)
The novel is essentially formless, but there is some pattern supplied by Mr. Thwing's attempt to solve an apparent murder in the Chicago rooming house he owns: a Dutch sea captain, Jehoiachim, who gives his age at 106, is found dead at the foot of the stairs after a large report is heard, and at the same time a Chinese is caught by Mr. Thwing while in the act of stealing a vase of great value from Jehoiachim's room. But Jehoiachim isn't killed till page 124, and the main issue is whether Thwing will marry Hermina. (pp. 11-12)
A stolen Ming vase (there also is a dog named Ming), taken by a stage Chinaman, Hang Lee, is lifted only because Jehoiachim died owing him for laundry, and Chinese like such art. Still, Thwing gets a threatening phone call from his brother-in-law, Hang Moy. Nothing comes of that either. But a thun-derstorm and lightning in the room brings Jubal to confess that he traded the vase—given him by a drunken Thwing—for a blue sash Jehoiachim had. So there was no theft at all, except Thwing's of the vase, while drunk, and there was no murder; a suspicious bump on...
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