In addition to his work as a novelist, Peter De Vries (duh VREEZ) was a short-story writer of some repute; a number of his stories are collected in No, but I Saw the Movie (1952) and Without a Stitch in Time: A Selection of the Best Humorous Short Pieces (1972). He also collaborated with Joseph Fields in writing a stage version of one of his novels, The Tunnel of Love: A Play (pb. 1957), and wrote the play Spofford (pb. 1968). In addition, he published a handful of essays and interviews.
In the 1950’s, Kingsley Amis called Peter De Vries the “funniest serious writer to be found either side of the Atlantic.” De Vries was certainly a clever punster and wit, a master of situation comedy, and a devastating observer of the foibles of suburbia. His droll humor often involves the amorous adventures of the middle-aged suburban male, torn between the sophisticated mores of Connecticut suburbia and his simpler childhood roots, usually in the Dutch Reformed Church or some other equally strict background. De Vries writes knowingly about the same suburban milieu as that of John Updike and John Cheever, but with less overt seriousness and more sheer fun. In fact, he resisted the label of “serious writer” (or, for that matter, “religious writer”), although he dealt extensively with serious topics, including religion, in most of his works. The predominant tone of his writing, with the exception of The Blood of the Lamb, is comic and even lighthearted.
De Vries was a prolific novelist, with more than two dozen novels published, along with several collections of short stories reprinted from The New Yorker. With so many novels to his credit, there is bound to be some repetitiveness, and De Vries often uses the same basic plot situation—the comic mischances of the lecherous suburban male who is thwarted by his moral scruples, his underlying decency, the vestiges of his past, or simply unlucky circumstances. There is a sameness about so many of hisprotagonists—particularly in their recollections of their strict religious backgrounds and their ambiguous attempts to “liberate” themselves from middle-class conventionality—that some critics have accused De Vries of being too autobiographical.
What saves his novels from redundancy is the variety of his humor: the puns, witticisms, drollery, repartee, lampoons, parodies, caricatures, and spoofs. De Vries displays the comic instincts of a cartoonist or a comedian, the ability to coin phrases or epigrams so funny that they are almost distracting. His fictional scenes seem to be built around the humorous or witty line, sometimes to the detriment of plot,narrative, or characterization. Given that De Vries repeatedly insisted that his primary purpose as a humorist was to entertain, the loose structure of his work may be judged a necessary...
Boston, Richard. An Anatomy of Laughter. London: Collins, 1974. Considers DeVries among the best humorists of his generation.
Bowden, Edwin T. Peter De Vries. Boston: Twayne, 1983. A concise critical biography that provides a useful overview of De Vries’ life and works. After an introductory biographical chapter, Bowden discusses each of the major novels. The text is supplemented by a chronology, notes, and a selected bibliography of primary and secondary works.
Campion, Dan. Peter De Vries and Surrealism. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1995. Provides chapters on De Vries’ literary life, his encounter with surrealism in the 1930’s, his novel But Who Wakes the Bugler?, and his use of humor. Includes very detailed notes and bibliography.
David, Douglas M. “An Interview with Peter De Vries.” College English 28 (April, 1967): 524-530. A lively interview in which the author raises some interesting questions about De Vries’ style of humor. De Vries discusses his use of suburban settings, his character types, and his humorous attitude toward sexuality.
Davies, Robertson. A Voice from the Attic. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin, 1990. Lauds De Vries’ ear for language and defends his relaxed use of first-person narrators.