I Hear America Swinging
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...
(The entire section is 1,715 words.)