Peter De Vries Essay - De Vries, Peter (Vol. 28)

De Vries, Peter (Vol. 28)

Introduction

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.)

Christopher Cerf

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 adventures that "Consenting Adults" principally concerns itself.

The gulf between Peachum's metaphysical and erotomaniacal pretensions, and the reality of everyday life in Pocock … provides Mr. De Vries with a perfect opportunity to dispense his own patented brand of irony, and he seizes it with awesome gusto. (pp. 1, 22)

Scarcely an event is allowed to occur unless it measures up to the standards of De Vriesian irony. A house burns down; we learn the fire started in the smoke-alarm system. A chiropractor throws his back out while ministering to a patient. And Mrs. d'Amboise's virginal daughter, Columbine—an island of innocence in the steamy sea of...

(The entire section is 877 words.)

T. Jeff Evans

Tunnel of Love [1954] 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 another 20th century writer—from James Joyce to James Jones—whose language and plots De Vries parodies.

Among the funniest of the novels are The Mackerel Plaza (1958) and Let Me Count the Ways (1965). Both reveal another central De Vries subject, religion, and especially the plights we face when traditional faiths and beliefs no longer serve us. Surely there is no more absurd picture of a contemporary clergy than the ludicrously liberal Rev. Andrew Mackerel with his split-level church. It is this present expense of spirit that creates the schizophrenic Tom Waltz of Let Me Count the Ways, offspring of an evangelical mother, who gives hand-tooled Bible belts as gifts, and an atheistic father. The result? "You want to raise him as a believer … I want to raise him as an atheist. O.K. we'll compromise. We'll bring him up an agnostic." Tom is finally saved by journeying to the religious shrine at Lourdes; miraculously, here he catches an unknown disease that reunites him with his estranged wife. A third novel, Blood of the Lamb (1961), is a moving tragicomic study of the possibility of faith in face of personal tragedy, the death of a child.

Reuben, Reuben (1964) is De Vries' attempt at a blockbuster. Its three-part structure and triple narration are meant to underscore the difficulty and complexity of its subject, modern love. Its characters include Spofford, a septuagenarian Yankee chicken farmer who becomes co-opted by the suburbia he mercilessly ridicules, and Owen McGland, easily the most damning portrait of Dylan Thomas ever sketched. Reuben, Reuben, to a degree, but much more Cat's Pajamas and Witch's Milk (1968)—two short novels published together—undercut or temper the essential comic tone of De Vries. Integral to De Vries' structures is a plot where the individual moves away from conformity and institutions in order to discover the repressed self. What he typically discovers, however, is that the self is false or distorted outside its community; the novels generally then return the individual to society through reconciliation. But not so Cat's Pajamas, which may be De Vries' most radical vision while still positing a comic world. At the end of the novel Hank Tattersall dies grotesquely, his...

(The entire section is 1536 words.)

Stuart Sutherland

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...

(The entire section is 1246 words.)

Peter Andrews

"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...

(The entire section is 786 words.)

Anthony Burgess

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...

(The entire section is 669 words.)

Rhoda Koenig

"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....

(The entire section is 588 words.)

James Wolcott

[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,...

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Jonathan Yardley

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...

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Michiko Kakutani

"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...

(The entire section is 610 words.)

Thomas Meehan

["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...

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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...

(The entire section is 3567 words.)