Peter De Vries 1910–
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.)