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Peter De Vries 1910–

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American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.

De Vries is one of America's best comic writers. His work provides the reader with a critical view of modern society. De Vries's main themes—marriage, love, religion, and conformity—are explored in darkly humorous ways. Using a combination of puns, parodies, epigrams, and burlesques, he shows modern men and women to be both absurd and strangely brave in their endless struggle to make sense of their lives and the confusing, unpredictable world that surrounds them.

De Vries is unconcerned with complex characterizations, relying instead on character types and incident. His protagonists are usually middle or upper middle-class young men from strict religious families who embark on a quest for the "real" self as marriage, family, and careers close in on them. These men reject the faith of their parents, avoid or abandon marriage, and often seek meaning in wild illusions and promiscuous sex. Most of them, however, revert to "normalcy." They become, if not formally religious, then humanistically agnostic, and they return to their wives or resolve to marry. Convention and conformity, De Vries seems to say, allow us to survive the chaos of modern life even as they limit and inhibit us.

While lacking the depth and sophistication of his later works, De Vries's early novels, But Who Wakes the Bugler? (1940), The Handsome Heart (1943), and Angels Can't Do Better (1944), introduce the themes and characterizations that recur throughout the rest of his work. In The Tunnel of Love (1954), Comfort Me with Apples (1956), and The Mackerel Plaza (1958), De Vries's "verbal wizardry," keen sense of life's ironies, and shrewd social observations are effectively and enjoyably combined. These three novels are among De Vries's best known and most acclaimed works.

With The Cat's Pajamas (1968) and many of the novels that follow it, a strain of cynicism and black humor not previously evident appears in De Vries's work. In general, critics found these books less successful than the earlier work, but most admired De Vries's skill in manipulating language to comic effect. Consenting Adults (1980), Sauce for the Goose (1982), and Slouching towards Kalamazoo (1983) are more optimistic and lightly humorous. In these works, De Vries seems again willing to accept and even relish life in spite of its darker sides and inexplicability.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 7, 10; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1982.)

Christopher Cerf

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QUESTION: Is it possible to cram into a novel every joke the theme and plot will allow, then add a couple of hundred more for good measure, and still maintain, from first page to last, a graceful, elegant and, above all, seemingly effortless prose style? ANSWER: Absolutely—but probably only if you're Peter De Vries. And in his latest comedy ["Consenting Adults: Or, The Duchess Will Be Furious"] Mr. De Vries once again demonstrates his unique ability to blend a motley array of absurd aphorisms, one-sentence character sketches, running gags, cosmological musings and inspired word games into a coherent—well, almost coherent—and hugely enjoyable book.

The narrator of "Consenting Adults" is Ted Peachum, the youthful product of a Pocock, Ill., furniture-moving family who, in his ambition to rise above his station, studies nihilist philosophy, discovers that everything he's "been so glibly spouting may very well be true" and promptly suffers a nervous collapse. Fortunately, Burwash, the "highly advanced" college Peachum chose when he failed to get into Harvard, allows him to take full academic credit for his crack-up, with the simple provision that he document the experience "to the satisfaction of the Psychology and English departments." Despite a B + on his...

(The entire section contains 12406 words.)

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