“If I spent my time portraying life as it actually is,” Peter De Vries once remarked, “I think I would go insane with boredom inside of two weeks.” Eschewing the realistic novel, De Vries has instead concentrated on entertaining his readers with witty and humorous works, filled with hilarious but highly improbable incidents. He was satisfied to write a good comic novel without aiming for any higher artistic qualities. This self-acknowledged limitation has been the source of much of the unevenness in De Vries’ work, with the overemphasis on humor weakening the structure of his novels—often to the neglect of narrative continuity, consistent point of view, clear transitions, and strong characterizations. In fact, many of his novels are so seriously flawed as scarcely to be considered novels at all; rather, they are loosely constructed narratives that simply provide a framework for the author’s comic genius.
Beyond the purpose of sheer entertainment, De Vries was ambiguous about the intent of his humor, minimizing the social commentary and underlying seriousness of his work so that it is difficult to categorize him as a comic novelist of manners or a satirist. Like his mentor, James Thurber, De Vries chose to limit the scope of his humor and to evoke laughter through grotesque or absurd depictions of modern suburban life, but as his later novels suggest, he risked reducing his work to formulaic entertainment or, worse, self-parody. Stylistically, De Vries is not as original as Thurber, but he is perhaps at his best as a parodist of other writers, or as a writer of brilliant puns and epigrams rather than as the creator of a unified and coherent comic vision. His weakness as a comic novelist comes from his failure to unify his material and to offer an implicit corrective vision to the world he ridicules.
The Tunnel of Love
De Vries’ first three novels are of slight artistic value. His first novel of note, and still perhaps his most popular, is The Tunnel of Love. Here one enters the affluent world of Connecticut suburbia as seen through the eyes of the first-person narrator, a New York magazine cartoon editor much like De Vries himself. The focus of the novel, however, is on the comic imbroglios of his next-door neighbors, Augie and Isolde Poole, a young, well-to-do, “artistic” couple who try to adopt a child to save their marriage. The novel alternates between Manhattan and Avalon, Connecticut, through a round of weekend cocktail parties and dinners that provide a backdrop for De Vries’ wit and cleverness. De Vries peoples the book with a humorous collage of “artsy” types—would-be actresses and directors, abstract painters, mediocre illustrators, poets manqués, affected snobs, precious aesthetes, and other rarefied types. In short, one finds all the empty worldliness of “Vanity Fair,” which De Vries is quick to mimic and satirize, yet one also feels the narrator’s attraction to these values, which lends the novel a curiously mixed tone of admiration and ridicule. De Vries is a shrewd observer of suburban language and behavior, with a good ear for nuances of conversation, and he creates a wonderful satire of the pretentious cocktail chitchat about creativity and neuroses that the characters employ to boost their sagging egos and disguise from themselves the truth of their mediocrity.
The protagonist, Augie Poole, is a good gag writer though a poor cartoonist who cannot sell his work, so he turns to profligacy to salve his ego. A self-confessed “rotter,” he is never quite as wicked as he pretends to be. Superficially a glib and literate ladies’ man, he is basically shallow and conceited, though not beyond eventual redemption through the responsibilities of parenthood. The Pooles ironically adopt the illegitimate child of Augie and his artist mistress, but not before a comic series of mishaps during the...
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