Peter De Vries (duh VREEZ) is the most serious of the comic writers (such as Robert Benchley, S. J. Perelman, and James Thurber) associated with The New Yorker. He was born in Chicago in 1910, the second child of Dutch immigrants, Joost and Henrietta Eldersveld De Vries. His parents were deeply religious Dutch Calvinists. De Vries attended a parochial school and in 1927 went to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he played basketball and edited the student newspaper. From 1931 to 1941 he worked at various jobs; he sold candy, worked on his father’s moving van, and was a radio actor. From 1941 to 1944 he was an editor of Poetry magazine. In that capacity he met Katinka Loeser, an associate editor of the magazine and a short-story writer. They married in 1943, and one year later, at the invitation of James Thurber, they moved to New York, where De Vries became the cartoon editor of The New Yorker.
In 1948 De Vries moved with his growing family to Westport, Connecticut. He and his wife had two sons and two daughters, one of whom, Emily, died of leukemia at the age of eleven in 1960. This inspired the searing account of the death of a child in The Blood of the Lamb. DeVries also tried to exorcise the experience in the paired novellas The Cat’s Pajamas (which was made into a film entitled Pete ‘n Tillie, with Walter Matthau and Carol Burnett) and Witch’s Milk. Between 1952 and 1986 De Vries published approximately one book per year, but his finest period was between 1954, when he wrote The Tunnel of Love, and 1965, when he wrote Let Me Count the Ways.
De Vries may be identified with The New Yorker for many reasons. The New Yorker presents a hectoring liberal morality flanked by advertisements that offer a cornucopia of sybaritic delights. The novels of De Vries present a similar contradiction. His protagonists are usually torn between a strict Calvinism in which they cannot believe and an exurban Vanity Fair of which they disapprove. Most of the novels are narrated in the first person by someone who has an amused contempt for the Protestantism he has left behind in the Midwest and yet is appalled by the shallowness and hypocrisy he finds among the commuters who are his neighbors. De Vries’ defense is a humor attuned to the absurdity of their opinions and the ridiculousness of their fashions. This posture could be offensively elitist, but De Vries is always kind to the objects of his amusement. He called himself a comic writer, not a satirist.
The Tunnel of Love is a paradigm of the De Vriesian novel. It contrasts two exurban neighbors: Dick Pepper, an inhibited moralist, and Augie Poole, who sows his wild oats. Pepper feels guilty for not being able to overcome his decency, and Augie plays the rogue so he can have something about which he can feel guilty. De Vries also contrasts his women characters. Augie’s wife is a fertile Earth Mother, whereas Dick and his wife are attempting to adopt a baby. When Augie has a fling with the comely inspector from the adoption agency, there is a further contrast between the loose and the chaste woman. The crisis in the novel depends on Pepper’s anxiety that he may be adopting his own child.
This early novel may have the tightest plot of all De Vries’ works. In his other works he sacrifices a whole scene for a pun or a whole chapter for the introduction of an eccentric character. Usually the joke is worth the digression. Proper names are often Dickensian puns (Mrs. Wallop, the lecherous poet McGland), and there are mixed metaphors (“He ought to have his marbles examined”), malapropisms (“pseudo-masochist”), and mispronunciations (“prolly” for “probably” and “kwee” for “could we”). De Vries introduces his readers to Moot Point (a seaside retreat) and By a Dam Site (a vacation home in Indiana).
Let Me Count the Ways illustrates De Vries’ use of two narrators. The first half...
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