(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Peter De Vries’s The Blood of the Lamb is a deeply religious novel, although the religious sensibility is often expressed in unconventional ways: through the comic, the grotesque, the mundane, and the tragic. The novel’s protagonist, Don Wanderhope, whose name suggests a religious quest, grows up in a strict Dutch Calvinist immigrant family in Chicago and later tries to escape from the confines of his immigrant background and become more fully Americanized. Yet he finds his aspirations to the good life thwarted by a series of unhappy circumstances as baffling in their own way as the Calvinistic God whom he has eschewed. The novel is written as Wanderhope’s autobiography, with the first section presenting the rather conventional, albeit comic story of an ambitious young man, but the last part of the book, the heart of the novel, deals with the religious crisis brought on by Wanderhope’s discovery that his daughter Carol has leukemia. “What people believe is a measure of what they suffer,” Wanderhope remarks early in the novel, and his daughter’s illness tests his faith and spiritual resources.

The novel opens in the Wanderhope apartment in Chicago with Don’s father, Ben, his uncle, and other relatives arguing over the infallibility of the Bible and trying to coax Ben back to orthodoxy, while his son Louie interjects wisecracks as he dresses for a date. Understandably, Don and Louie are more interested in the secular world of Chicago than in Calvinistic Dutch Reformed theology. Don idolizes his older brother for his freethinking and worldliness, but Louie, the golden-haired, healthy boy, dies of pneumonia at the age of nineteen. After his death, Louie remains a model for his younger brother, who strives to escape from the provincialism of his Dutch immigrant background.

Eventually Don meets a Dutch Reformed girl, Greta Wigbaldy, the daughter of a successful builder, who encourages him in his worldly quest. She obtains a key to one of her father’s model homes, which they use for their rendezvous until they are caught while making love one evening when her parents arrive with buyers. Don soon finds himself committed to marry Greta.

Around this time, he contracts a slight case of tuberculosis, which requires him to go to a sanatorium near Denver for rest and recuperation. His marriage postponed indefinitely, Don finds himself bedridden and bored. He becomes a member of a small Thursday night literary group which gathers at the home of Dr. and Mrs. Simpson, but his reprieve comes when he meets Rena Baker, a...

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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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.