Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1679
In I Hear America Swinging (the title comes from a pseudo-Whitman poem that opens the novel) Peter De Vries’s seventeenth novel, this chronicler of the absurdities of sophisticated East Coast America describes the effects of that emancipation and erudition—sexual, cultural, aesthetic—when it pervades (infects?) the Middle West. Or, to coin a metaphor that is almost as “bad” as those that glut this marvelously corny, deliciously zany—if seriously flawed—book: what happens when the Bible Belt drops its pants?
The recorder of this cultural-moral revolution is Bill Bumpers, a fledgling marriage counselor (“those ambulance drivers in the war between the sexes”) who sets up shop in the heart of the heart of the country, Middle City, Iowa. Bumpers is nobody’s fool—when the sociology department rejects his doctoral dissertation as inept, he submits it to the English department as an “antinovel” and wins his degree with honors—but the minute he encounters his first client, a farmer’s wife in an “F. Scott Fitzgerald” sweatshirt, he is put off-balance by the newly liberated and sophisticated denizens of Middle City. Until he gets the hang of it, about halfway through the novel, Bumper’s marital advising brings on disastrous and hilarious complications.
His first challenge, one that snowballs into a series of riotous situations, is to salvage his first client’s (Mrs. Hattie Brown) deteriorating relationship with her husband, Heck. Having taken up with a fast “in-crowd” led by Ma Godolphin, a granny-like fast food operator and local real estate tycoon, Brown has become a passionate sophisticate. It is he who was responsible for the Fitzgerald sweatshirt (he wears “e. e. cummings”); Heck reads the Bible as “literature” (“it’s one of those gems you never tire of. You can go back to it again and again. Like Gatsby and ’Prufrock’ and parts of Bank Dick”), attends film festivals with the Godolphin Gang, and, worst of all, neglects the farm with cavalier disdain (” ’shouldn’t you be dusting the crops?’ the wife asked. . . . ’Oh, the maid will dust them,’ the farmer said, and gave his ’new’ laugh”).
Bumpers advises Mrs. Brown to make a deal: she tolerates Heck’s new behavior if he will read the Bible straight through from cover to cover. The advice backfires: Biblical references to concubines inspire Heck to new heights of worldliness. A local lady sculptress is invited to the farm, renamed “Pretty Pass,” which becomes the site of a ménage à trois, defined by Ma Sigafoos, Hattie’s mother, as “triangles that get along.”
Before too long Pretty Pass takes on the outline of a modest, but distinctive, commune. The lady sculptress goes, but her place is taken by the hired man, Clem Clammidge, who then neglects his chores. To take up the slack, a second hand is hired, Charlie Achorn, world traveler, raconteur, and amateur philosopher. Things soon get quite complicated, especially in bed. The complications do not so much end as fade from the center of the novel as the author shifts his attention to other aspects of the swinging scene in the town. Bumpers’ profession allows De Vries the flexibility to shift from character to character and situation to situation as his comedic and satiric impulses dictate. As one problem gets solved, or at least stabilized, Bumpers just moves on to another and De Vries sets up a different target for his verbal darts.
Thus, as the ménage à trois calms things down between the Browns, the problem of Clem Clammidge, the hired man, moves to the center. The sophisticated environment has given him an inferiority complex. Bumpers’ treatment is to maneuver Clem into the role of “authentic primitive art critic” as a counter-irritant to the plethora of newly discovered primitive artists. Clem’s “sharp tongue and salty put-downs” make him an instant hit—until experience and “learning” (he starts reading other critics) corrupt his primitivism and produce another crisis, this one over “identity,” and yet another Bumper intrigue, which introduces Bumper’s old college chum and East Coast refugee, Artie Pringle.
But the introduction of Pringle into the story shifts the tone of the book and inaugurates a gradual deflation of its comic energies. It is not so much Pringle’s character as it is the changing role of Bumpers—or, rather, the shift in our responses to him. In the beginning he is an amiable, moderately clever, basically indistinct fellow who provides us with eyes. But with Pringle’s entrance, De Vries begins to characterize his marriage counselor as a real person so that by the end of the book our concerns are—or are supposed to be—with him as he becomes the moral voice of the book. Unfortunately, however, the strategy does not work: it undercuts and dissipates the tone of the novel. To suggest an extreme analogy: it is as if Lawrence Olivier wandered into the middle of a Marx Brothers movie and began to play the romantic lead.
In the first half of the book Bumpers simply reports on the comic extravagances of a gallery of rustic grotesques—Hattie and Heck, Clem, Ma Sigafoos, Charlie Achorn—who manage, between themselves, to make fun of most of the intellectual, moral, and artistic clichés of our times. It is this incongruity between the “hick-town” images and the “city-slicker” morality and style that gives the author a running gag which he shamelessly and hilariously exploits. The characters and situations are not so much from fiction as they are fugitives from a thoroughly zany X-rated comic strip. The jokes, gags, jibes, puns, one-liners, and wild metaphors, which might be embarrassing and corny handled by another writer, fit perfectly into the mad, fast, ridiculous environment of De Vries’s Middle City. As in the best of the Li’l Abner strips, the satirical target is not the stupidity of the “hick,” but the absurdity of fashionable pretensions made vivid by being pasted on a collection of rural caricatures.
But the novel’s comic-strip one-dimensionality of the first half gives way to a realistic, sentimental romance. The more active Bumpers becomes as a character, the less effective he is as an observer. With the entrance of Pringle, the focus shifts to Bumpers’ activities as a participant. With mixed feelings, he joins an orgy with Pringle’s group, the “Bardevils”; he has a serious flirtation with a feminist waitress; he has a wild affair with Ma Godolphin, local tycoon and social arbiter; and, finally, he woos and wins Pringle’s secretary, the lovely Claire de Lune. In each of these situations we are expected to take Bumpers seriously, feeling with him and for him as we would the protagonist of a straight novel. But the shift from comic strip to melodrama is too great; the comic—and serious—effects of the former are blunted while the latter seems forced.
Nevertheless, the novel does not simply collapse at the midway point. Much rich humor and astute observation continue throughout the book. Especially funny is De Vries’s brief vignette on the state of the Church in a time of topsyturvy morality. Like the rest of Middle City, the church is hip: the minister does celebrity imitations from the pulpit, “Chattanooga Choo Choo” serves as a recessional, and an “Après Church” follows the service. Overhearing the parishioners as they exit the church, Bumpers realizes that the “generation gap” is no problem among these parents.“I hear Cissy’s rabbit test was positive. I suppose that shoots it for college next se-next semester?” “Not at all. She’s taking the pregnancy for her N.R.T.” “What’s that?’ Mrs. Sigafoos whispered to me. “Non-resident term, I believe.” “Cissy’s discussed it all with the dean, and they’ll give her credit for it.” “Who’s the boy?” “Oh, it’s one of those no-fault pregnancies, you know.” “Bobsy’s thinking of taking her N.R.T. as a call girl. She’s majoring in sociology, after all. John figures at least it will keep her off the streets.”
But, in the latter part of the book, these comic interludes seem almost gratuitous, sidelights to a narrative action that grows increasingly, and self-consciously, serious.
The reason for this shift in tone and intention seems to be thematic. In the first half of the novel De Vries deflates the clichés of modern hypersophistication, but in the second half he seems to be trying to offer positive values. Bumpers finds—and proclaims—a human need for sexual stability in the settled ménage à trois at Pretty Pass; he learns that even the most active “swinging” has a rigid morality of its own; and, most importantly, his romance with Claire de Lune is old-fashioned, hopefully monogamous, and innocent. On his wedding night, Bumpers has no sex; instead, he occupies himself with a long nostalgic reverie about his idylic first love as an unjaded, virginal twelve-year-old.
The problem is not, as some critics have suggested, that De Vries is “too clever,” or that he is “too serious”: he has just not managed, in this novel at least, to get the two together. Bill Bumpers is a touchstone character, the one sane man in a mad world. Such a character can be the catalyst in a serious satirical book, but he must not break the tonal fabric of the work. He must either have his own brand of madness that allows him to counter the prevailing insanity, without jarring the book’s artistic consistency—in the manner, say, of Yossarian in Catch-22—or he must remain on the sidelines as an observer-interpreter. By attempting to make his hero both see and do, De Vries has undercut his ability to do either effectively.
But if the book is uneven, it is still definitely funny and perceptive. The marvelous, zany humor and the sharp individual insights will, at the very least, provide hours of entertaining, stimulating reading. I Hear America Swinging definitely “swings” in the old-fashioned, square sense of the word: it is full of life, energy, humor, color, healthy “corn,” and good clean fun.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 36
Christian Science Monitor. LXVIII, August 11, 1976, p. 22.
National Observer. XV, June 12, 1976, p. 21.
New York Times Book Review. May 9, 1976, p. 5.
New Yorker. LII, June 28, 1976, p. 89.
Newsweek. LXXXVII, May 17, 1976, p. 108.
Saturday Review. III, April 17, 1976, p. 34.
Time. CVII, May 24, 1976, p. 86.
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