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,...
(The entire section contains 2821 words.)
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- Critical Essays