Peter De Vries De Vries, Peter (Vol. 7) - Essay

De Vries, Peter (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

De Vries, Peter 1910–

De Vries, a novelist, entertains with his facile comedies of American life—but he is a moralist, a social commentator. De Vries also writes short stories, many of which have been published in The New Yorker. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

There is something irresistible in the honk of common speech, as Eliot no doubt guessed when he planned to title his "aristophanic melodrama" "Wanna Go Home, Baby?" That he later called it "Sweeney Agonistes" is more an example of caution than pedantry, for after all, it's easy to be misunderstood, or suspected of triviality, if you use slang. One of De Vries's earliest pieces was an excursion into Eliot, an essay called "Thurber: The Comic Prufrock" (the compliment of a thoughtful essay has been extended to De Vries himself, but only in England, where his mastery of slang has been justly recognized as a mature effort to rephrase our anxieties). And from Spofford and Joe Sandwich and Al Banghart, to Jim Tickler of ["The Glory of the Hummingbird"]—its title from Eliot—the shadow cast across the De Vries hero is that of an even more extroverted Sweeney.

Eliot tended to wear his erudition like a suit of armor, obscuring rather than buttressing what jokes he risked in his collages of borrowed lines. De Vries makes more of his studious pilferage, and it is a tribute to our most dedicated satirist that his new novel gives a hilarious dimension to one of Eliot's most poignant poems. Nor does De Vries's erudition ever make a clanging intrusion. (p. 6)

Comedy, for the Peter De Vries character, is a form of boldness; a sense of humor provides an opportunity for heroism; only the brave crack jokes. How welcome a rarity in a savage time, when book clubs are mugging their members with horror stories, for De Vries's annual novel to be a celebration of comedy as power. Indeed, a capacity for joking makes De Vries's characters unassailable, but solitary. So none of his clerics (Rev. Mackerel in "The Mackerel Plaza," Rev. Shorty Hopwell in "Into Your Tent I'll Creep," Rev. Slosch in the present novel) can sustain traditional pieties and keep a straight face; and the mammoth success of Jim Tickler … is no match for his lucid, reflective wit…. [He] must face the fact that for all the fun he's had embroidering on his encyclopedic knowledge, that patter of nostrums that brings him to fame, his own humor deflates his gasconading worldliness. Those who glitter with the glory of the hummingbird are vain: they find, says Eliot, death. Fortunately, Jim is offered redemption, as so many other De Vries characters are, in a well-delivered punch line and a cosmic nudge in the ribs….

De Vries's success is almost wholly attributable to his command of all the inflections of comic language….

A joke requires a butt every bit as much as a chair does; in his previous 15 books De Vries has chosen his victims with great care, and this new one is no exception. It is one of his best, not merely for what comedy is topical in it, but rather for the timeless gusto of its comedians, each one as fresh as Feste, offering us, when the derangement of melancholy seems almost overwhelming, the gift of laughter. (p. 7)

Paul Theroux, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 27, 1974.

De Vries appears, on the basis of this one novel [The Glory of the Hummingbird] (one which, according to other reviewers, is among his best), to be an ingenious and somewhat facile writer—enormously skilled at puns and one-liners, but rather lacking in the depth that characterizes the great humorists. At the risk of being facile myself, it seems to me that De Vries is to Thurber as Bob Hope is to Elaine May. (pp. 21-2)

The Glory of the Hummingbird is determinedly topical: a tale for our times and all that. There are few things as shortlived, however, as political satire: is anyone still reading Philip Roth's Our Gang, or listening to Mort Sahl's late-'50s record albums? Once Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew have passed, mercifully, from the center of the national consciousness, a good deal in this novel is going to seem dated.

The reason to read De Vries, it seems to me, is neither for his moral (no matter how engagingly or impudently presented) not for his plot (which creaks), but for his wickedly sharp powers of observation. When it comes to defining the tiniest details of the human comedy, De Vries does rank with his predecessors….

Social pretense, whether inherited or acquired, stands not a chance under De Vries' scrutiny: he knocks off targets with the unerring accuracy of a penny-arcade marksman. Freudianism, consumerism, merchandising, puritanism, dogoodism—whatever he sets sight on, he knocks over.

Still what he has come up with here is far less a sustained piece of fiction than a succession of gags. Almost all of them are funny, and for humor such as this we should be grateful. I have detected, however, in reviews of this and earlier De Vries, a tendency to credit him with more than is really there. It is not enough to score a series of bulls'-eyes; they have to add up to a more coherent whole than they do in The Glory of the Hummingbird. (p. 22)

Jonathan Yardley, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), December 7, 1974.

Mr. De Vries is such a sure-handed humorist that he can allow his characters to melt in admiration for each other's lines (or, as the lines sometimes require, to wince with pain) and always be on target. His sentences are spiral staircases of elegantly connected idiom, leading up and up to increasingly rarefied spheres of meaning. He is, within reasonable limits, a critic of his times…. (p. 194)

The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), December 9, 1974.

When Peter De Vries is at his best, he should be read by everyone with a sense of humor. This time he is at his best.

The Glory of the Hummingbird is doubly a comic novel, since it is funny all the way and it has a happy ending. These are two quite different things, for the first is art, the second, philosophy. De Vries' characters are trapped in the same stickum as the rest of us, slowly struggling through the tar pits, watching their legs pump in slow motion, wondering whether it's too late to turn back, but they have two immense advantages: their language is superior, and they eventually learn their limitations….

De Vries seems to have his own version of the Peter Principle: people who have reached their level of incompetence will become corrupted by attempting to advance further….

If his moral, "there's nothing like a fall from grace to land you in people's graces," seems a bit smug, it's also bitter-sweet, and belongs in a world we recognize as our own. Stick with the life you're good at—it sounds so sensible it's funny. Once burned, twice happy. (p. 117)

Charles Nicol, in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1975; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), January 31, 1975.

Peter De Vries disarms the critic by describing his own defects and excesses as if they belonged to his characters. Jim Tickler, his narrator in The Glory of the Hummingbird, overwrites: 'every sentence like a mother cat nursing a litter of cosily squirming subordinate clauses'. Jim's sister has 'a habit of seeing human relations as a challenge to her skill at getting from one witticism to the next'. Just like De Vries. But he is always a pleasure to read, stylishly witty in the tradition of Dorothy Parker, Thurber and the New Yorker in its heyday. As Kingsley Amis used Lucky Jim Dixon to puncture the pretensions of the academic establishment, so De Vries makes lucky Jim Tickler demonstrate how hard it is for a TV personality to enter the Kingdom of Heaven—especially by way of a 'fixed' quizshow. If you confess your sins in an acceptably vulgar phrase—'I've been living a lie'—you can even increase the number of fans who demand your autograph. 'So that's the moral. There's nothing like a fall from grace to land you in people's graces.' (pp. 253-54)

John Mellors, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1975; reprinted by permission of John Mellors), February 20, 1975.

Even the most insatiable of Peter De Vries's admirers have acknowledged a certain falling-off in his last three or four novels. There is something about his facility—the cute aphorisms, the dinky paradoxes and pop-gun aperçus—which regularly lays him open to the facile. Comic moralists tend to get less comic and more moral as they progress, but not De Vries. Having brought the funny-serious novel to near perfection in mid-career with The Blood of the Lamb, a book that combined low hilarity with a truly majestic wordly disgust, he has since been content to sit back and (as he would say) give his cortex its head.

Until now. The Glory of the Hummingbird is a resounding half-success, a bafflingly amateurish attempt to pin grave sententiae on to essentially playful material….

[Quite] without warning, the book decides to get educational. We expect a mild tragi-comedy of manners at the end of a De Vries novel, but not the naïve cautionary tale we are presented with here…. The poise of the comic moralist seems temporarily to have deserted Mr De Vries. Cut off from his wit, his moral thinking is without interest; cut off from his seriousness, his comic effects are sharp, vivid—and local. (p. 250)

Martin Amis, in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), February 21, 1975.

"Middle City" is familiar breeding ground for De Vries; his characters often try to be something they aren't, or avoid being something they are. The denizens of ["I Hear America Swinging"], his 17th novel, are caught in just that kind of crunch—somewhere between the old and the new. They are victims of a sexual freedom that produces "nofault pregnancies" but that is more compulsory than it is permissive—and of a "brittle dialogue" that has been working its way west, leaving just about everybody with some kind of "identity crisis" to contend with. As Ma Sigafoos says, "There's a lot of that going around."

At the center of De Vries's best books—the ones I like best anyway—can usually be found a strong if contradictory character, oftimes colored by what reviewers like to call darkening strains, someone who carries things forward and who gives all the stuff and nonsense something from which to build. Bumpers is the most likely candidate here, but he never really takes center stage. His recollections of being "the victim of an intact home," one that should have been dismantled long ago, are moving and revealing, but these moments—or his marriage to Claire De Lune, for instance—seem somehow removed from the rest of the goings on. I don't mean to try to make the book into something it's not, but expectations are set up that are never really rewarded. Many individual scenes are amusing and rambunctious, but others especially toward the end lack thrust and seem a little strained—and the book never quite jells.

It would be fun, given the space, to talk about all the prose things that Peter De Vries does so well. Someone once noted that De Vries's characters would be comfortable in Wodehouse novels; they can be fancy and slangy in one breath, sprinkling in inaccurate allusions and shameless bon mots, bromides, sallies, chestnuts, japes and puns. I don't think anybody would be comfortable in De Vries's novels though; he has a franchise on a certain kind of twisty, quirky, misbegotten world that's easy to lose your bearings in. And he paints it all in with amazing, derring-do, highly charged, bass-ackward sentences that you can't believe he'll emerge from, still having the last word. Much less, the last laugh. (p. 5)

Robert M. Strozier, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 9, 1976.

[Nothing] has changed in the De Vriesian fields for decades. His new novel ["I Hear America Swinging"] opens with a newly discovered shard from Whitman ("I hear America swinging, / The carpenter with his wife or the mason's wife, or even the mason …")….

Paying less attention than usual to the routine carpentry that holds a plot together, De Vries offers some marvelous characters … [and even more marvelous wisecracks]…. All of De Vries's novels are very funny, all are pretty much alike—I stopped hoping he would write a new novel ten years or so ago—and by now they give the impression that he can do this stuff in his sleep. "I Hear America Swinging" may lack some of the bitter edge of De Vries's best work, but I'm not complaining—its author is one of our national resources. (p. 109)

Peter S. Prescott, in Newsweek (copyright 1976 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), May 17, 1976.

In [I Hear America Swinging],… Peter De Vries … again shows that he is more than a match for the absurdities of modern life. Give him the latest fad, the most flaccidly permissive excuse for current thought, and he will top it nearly every time. With-it Protestantism? De Vries offers a minister who does impressions of movie stars from the pulpit and later throws a brunch at the "Après Church." The new amorality? He comes up with a mother who boasts that her unmarried daughter is having "one of those no-fault pregnancies."…

De Vries is regularly able to have his cake and throw it too. He impartially lampoons both home-grown ignorance and cultivated claptrap. The decline of the West is mirrored in the progress of Handyman Clem Clammidge, whom Bumpers encourages to become a "primitive" art critic for the local paper. At first, Clem's relentless know-nothingism is a great hit: "Them nude self-portraits of hers have put her behind in her work." But Clem begins reading other art critics. Soon his critiques bristle with phrases like "Countervailing polytonalities."… [De Vries] is still very much a moralist without portfolio. Neither hidebound nor skin-crazed, De Vries deplores the passive way his common yeomanry lay down their arms to the sexual revolution. Classical satire could comfortably mock those who aped their fashionable betters; De Vries works in this elitist vein, but he cannot find any fashionable elite worth aping…. De Vries' plague on both the leaders and the led is clear enough.

Paul Gray, "Paradise Mislaid," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), May 24, 1976, p. 86.

A prolific writer with a respectable following, [De Vries] is pleasantly erudite, his style is quirkily graceful, he is perceptive, and he can make you laugh. In a literary climate that bids fair to be taken over by fellows emeritus of the Nixon Administration, these are qualities not to be taken lightly. He has a splendid ear for the nuances of semiliterate speech ("a man should be greater than some of his parts," remarks one of his characters) and his vision of America as a gigantic jackdaw's nest is one that would have given no discomfort to Mark Twain. There is little doubt that he would be a formidable novelist if only his books didn't seem to disappear before your eyes as you read them.

Peter De Vries writes the way a Dutch uncle talks—a Dutch uncle with an IQ of 145. He perceives that we are troubled in spirit, and he proposes to jolly us out of it. This therapy takes the form of jokes. Jokes, unfortunately, require victims, and passive ones at that; the moment a character begins to question the stupid things he is being made to say and the idiotic ways in which he is being made to behave is the moment when he will turn on his tormentor with the leg of a chair. If a real person were, by chance, to wander into a De Vries novel, the whole thing would come tumbling down like a house of cards.

I Hear America Swinging is easily disposed of—always a bad sign…. Buried beneath the one-liners and the silly twists of the plot lies a rather shrewd perception of America as a country that no longer knows who it is, that will embrace any fad or jargon that seems to bestow an identity, however false. If, as De Vries points out, there is something absurd about the crowds that flocked to see The Exorcist, there is also something mighty strange. Striving after sanity has become the national pastime. It is De Vries' great failing that, having recognized this rather awful truth, he chooses to treat it with humorous contempt.

L. J. Davis, "Beneath the Jokes, Contempt," in The National Observer, June 12, 1976, p. 21.