Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Toward the end of the second section of the book, Charles Swallow recounts a vision: “With that odd unreality we experience in dreams, I seemed unable to do anything right, but bungled whatever I put my hand to.” Though the events of the dream are indeed unreal, the incompetence that they expose is not.
As the Picayune Blade’s “Lamplighter,” Swallow advises those who write to him in distress. He takes this role of Dutch uncle seriously and so cannot refuse Charles Appleyard’s plea for help with his daughter. Years earlier, Swallow and Elizabeth had been discovered together in a coal bin, and this traumatic experience had arrested her sexual and intellectual development.
Swallow attempts to repair the damage by exposing her to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and he succeeds all too well. Soon Elizabeth runs away to Greenwich Village to live with Danny Dolan; she decides to have a child without the nuisance of a husband, imitating the uninhibited Isadora Duncan. She chooses Swallow as the father; even though he initially refuses, he later consents when he sees her getting into a taxicab with his brother-in-law, Nickie Sherman, his other botched case.
To persuade Nickie to abandon his unremunerative detective work for a regular job, Swallow arranges a supposed murder that reveals exactly how inept Sherman can be. Instead of curing Nickie, though, the exposure induces schizophrenia: Half of Nickie remains a mediocre sleuth, but the other half becomes Johnny Velours, master thief.
It is to save his sister’s marriage from further strain that Swallow agrees to father Beth Appleyard’s child. After she becomes pregnant, she has second thoughts. When her father and grandmother are killed in a plane crash, she reverts to her adolescent inability to cope with life.
Swallow thus fails to help the two people he has tried so hard to aid, watching them drift off into insanity. Frustrated, he, too, takes refuge in temporary madness. All ends happily, though, as Nickie recovers his sanity and prepares for a teaching job, Elizabeth moves to California and marries well, and Swallow emerges from his experiences a wiser man.
Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Bowden, Edwin T. Peter De Vries. Boston: Twayne, 1983. A concise critical biography that provides a useful overview of De Vries’s life and works. After an introductory biographical chapter, Bowden discusses each of De Vries’s major novels. The text is supplemented by a chronology, notes, and a selected bibliography of primary and secondary works.
Campion, Dan. Peter De Vries and Surrealism. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1995. Provides chapters on De Vries’s literary life, his encounter with surrealism in the 1930’s, his novel But Who Wakes the Bugler, and his use of humor. Includes very detailed notes and bibliography.
David, Douglas M. “An Interview with Peter De Vries.” College English 28 (April, 1967): 524-530. A lively interview in which the author raises some interesting questions about De Vries’s style of humor. De Vries discusses his use of suburban settings, his character types, and his humorous attitude toward sexuality.
Higgins, William R. “Peter De Vries.” In American Novelists Since World War II. Vol. 6 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1980. A standard author entry that provides a useful profile of De Vries’s life and works. It includes a list of primary and secondary sources.
Jellema, Roderick. Peter De Vries: A Critical Essay. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1966. This monograph in the Contemporary Writers in Christian Perspective series includes a critical study of De Vries’s first eight novels. This study points to the religious issues that are often overlooked in discussions of De Vries as a humorist.
Sale, Richard B. “An Interview in New York with Peter De Vries.” Studies in the Novel 1 (1969): 364-369. This interview touches on De Vries’s writing habits and includes questions about the type of humor in his novels and his view of the world. De Vries discusses the question of whether he is a black humorist.
Yagoda, Ben. “Being Seriously Funny.” The New York Times Magazine, June 12, 1983, 42-44. A feature article that presents a portrait of De Vries and an overview of his literary career. Yagoda’s article offers a good introduction to the writer and his work.