Slouching Towards Kalamazoo
In times of potential social, religious, political, diplomatic, and economic disruption, comedy in the late twentieth century tends to be scant. Art Buchwald and Erma Bombeck make people laugh; Gary Trudeau sharpens political perspectives with his ironic wit. Where, however, is the tradition of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata—the sense of well-intentioned, conventional men trying to function in a society seemingly gone berserk? That tradition continues in Peter De Vries’ latest novel, Slouching Towards Kalamazoo, although the fact appears to be a well-kept secret. For more than four decades, De Vries has bared human absurdities to an undeservedly small readership; reportedly, his novels sell about twenty-five thousand hardbound copies each, certainly a statistic well below the conventional best-seller list. While Slouching Towards Kalamazoo is not likely to exceed those modest sales, it, like other De Vries novels, warrants closer attention, for Slouching Towards Kalamazoo contributes to the oeuvre of this serious comic novelist.
After earning his bachelor of arts degree at Calvin College in 1931, De Vries edited community newspapers and free-lanced until he became affiliated with Poetry magazine in 1938. His first book, But Who Wakes the Bugler? was published in 1940. A shift to The New Yorker magazine in 1944 gave impetus to his writing career. In 1952, De Vries published No But I Saw the Movie, a collection of short stories (many originally published in The New Yorker), followed in 1954 by his novel, The Tunnel of Love. Since then, De Vries has produced a book every year or two, novels or short-story collections. His works have been book-club selections, have been dramatized on the stage, and have been adapted to film. Slouching Towards Kalamazoo is De Vries’ twenty-fourth book—testimony to his skill and art as well as to his fascination with the perdurable follies of humankind.
Slouching Towards Kalamazoo is related as a first-person narrative told by the protagonist, Tony Thrasher. It is an injustice to dismiss the plot as a thinly primal manifestation of adolescent hormones: A fifteen-year-old eighth-grade student (Tony) impregnates his unmarried twenty-nine-year-old teacher (Maggie Doubloon), and each of them is forced to confront the consequences of producing the illegitimate Ahab. To be sure, the first part of the novel deals with Maggie’s pregnancy, and the second part covers the aftermath. Neat summations, however, and orderly divisions hardly account for the Byzantine twists which De Vries casually injects into the lives of his characters, building to a Rabelaisian conclusion.
Three examples will underscore the point. First, while Tony futilely tries to obtain for Maggie the abortifacient ergot in his small North Dakota hometown, the fictitious Ulalume, his Presbyterian clergyman-father engages the local atheistic dermatologist, Doc Mallard, in a public debate over Christianity versus atheism. The two debaters convert each other, whereupon Tony’s mother divorces his defrocked father to marry the born-again dermatologist while his father moves to New York City, where he takes up a career doing voice-overs for television commercials and lives with a very young woman. Second, when Tony finally locates Maggie and the two-year-old Ahab two years later in Kalamazoo, Maggie has firmly and successfully established herself in business, producing and selling T-shirts imprinted with a red “A+,” capitalizing on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter and her own unwed motherhood by marketing a garment which suggests that the wearer is a sexual athlete. Third, Tony becomes enamored of Ahab’s baby-sitter, Bubbles Breedlove, whose father Maggie ultimately marries, while Tony waits several years before allowing Maggie to contrive his marriage to Bubbles, thus producing a family configuration that Tony tortuously and inimitably describes:You would be hard put to it to record it in any family Bible. An offspring of my own is my father-in-law’s stepson and my wife’s stepbrother. I am to live in a kind of incestuous relationship with my son’s stepsister, as I already have in a sort of warmup sense with my now and future mother-in-law—who at the time of the nuptials is again great with child, who will turn out to be another boy, giving my semilegitimate son and my wife both an additional stepbrother, Tom, who, however, will call my wife and me Uncle and Aunt. The question of where my future children will fit into this is one that boggles the mind . . . the raw materials for a classic Greek house mess.
Does one laugh, or does one cry? The oblique reference (“a classic Greek house mess”) to the House of Atreus and the Oedipus story attests the seriousness of the circumstances, yet one cannot but whoop with laughter, envisioning Tony’s situation. Nevertheless, comedy is tragedy in rabbit skin, and De Vries is a virtuoso in the furrier’s trade.
In masterful strokes, De Vries overcomes the disadvantages of first-person narrative by endowing his narrator, Tony, with sophisticated powers of observation so as to portray other characters as fully fleshed-out human beings—yet so subtly that Tony does not appear obviously precocious.
Of course, De Vries’ naming of his characters plays a large part in his skill at characterization. Tony Thrasher certainly thrashes about a considerable amount in the process of growing up; his life is nearly a classic Bildungsroman. So, also, his parents thrash about a considerable amount trying to resolve their own problems. Tony’s sobriquet for his mother, “Dearest,” derives from an affectation of Little Lord Fauntleroy and reflects Tony’s perceived relationship with his mother, while Maggie Doubloon is certainly the gold coin in Tony’s life. In turn, Maggie’s grandfather Stubblefield is a scratchy old codger, while the illegitimate child Ahab, named after his grandfather, has familial, biblical, and literary connotations to carry. Bubbles Breedlove is a case unto itself: She is far from an intellectual, she inflames Tony’s lust, and her major accomplishment is that she can blow bubbles without mechanical devices. The dermatologist Humphrey Mallard comes across as an awkward duck. Above all, Tony’s penchant for “tags” (De Vries’ contrivance) is positively...
(The entire section is 2628 words.)