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 evil.
The targets of De Vries’ humor are the pretenses and absurdities of modern, affluent suburbia. In an interview, the author once commented, “I’m a regionalist, like Thomas Hardy. And I love those yokels who get off the same bar car at the same time every night and have never swum in anything but a pool in their own backyards. It’s really a new provincialism.” His “Avalon” and “Decency” are the fictional counterparts of the wealthy, exclusive suburbs, such as Greenwich, Darien, Stamford, and Westport, along Connecticut’s “Gold Coast.” His characters—or sometimes caricatures—show all the vanities, postures, and affectations of wealth, education, and “good breeding” that might be expected of sophisticated Connecticut suburbanites, yet De Vries is never harsh or satiric, commenting that the purpose of humor, unlike satire, is not to kill one’s prey but to bring it back alive to be released. De Vries’ humor is thus more charitable than satire; he invites humankind “to laugh at itself.”
De Vries is a master of the humorous scene and the comic caricature. Many of his characters are immediately recognizable as “types”—the ultraliberal clergyman, the suave newspaper columnist, the lecherous poet, the hick farmer, the small-town atheist, the unsuccessful artist, and the television game-show host—and they behave in predictable ways. The humor occurs as De Vries builds his scenes toward a hilarious climax—such as the cup of bourbon switched with the teacups at the church ladies’ reception in The Mackerel Plaza or the social worker’s visit to a disorganized family in The Tunnel of Love.
Often the comedy takes the form of a continuation of James Thurber’s “battle of the sexes,” with De Vries’ male characters seeking a worldly sophistication and urbanity in which to live out their fantasies, only to be thwarted by the forces of female respectability. Virtually all of De Vries’ novels have a male protagonist, and he wrote from a decidedly male perspective on the themes of sex and marriage, explaining once in an interview that bawdy literature is written predominantly by men. His characters think they want the freedom and irresponsibility of a carefree bachelor life, with its worldliness and sophistication, but they seem bewildered or disappointed if they get what they seek. The theme of many of his comic novels (and hence the source of their humor) is the shallowness and superficiality of the sophisticated suburban life.
Perhaps the key to De Vries’ best work is in the tragicomic tone of his humor—that urge to laugh so as not to cry that marks the grotesque “as a blend of the tragic and comic.” Too often in De Vries’ novels, however, the comic is present without the tragic, the burlesque and farcical without the serious note that could redeem the work from being merely superficial entertainment. De Vries’ inferior works always seem to verge on situation comedy, with their frequently contrived or manufactured scenes, and it is not surprising that he collaborated on a successful Broadway production based on his novel The Tunnel of Love. The Blood of the Lamb is incomparably De Vries’ best novel, with its poignant mixture of humor and pathos; coming at midcareer, it is the touchstone against which the remainder of his novels must be measured. The earlier works in comparison seem to strain after a false sophistication, and the later novels appear increasingly superficial, employing forced gags and contrived situations and depending too heavily on topical humor and burlesque of current trends and fashions.
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.
Higgins, William R. “Peter De Vries.” In American Novelists Since World War II. Vol. 6 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1980. A standard author entry that provides a useful profile of De Vries’ life and works. It includes a list of primary and secondary sources.
Hunt, Georg W. “Of Many Things.” America, October 23, 1993. An obituary that also discusses several DeVries novels.
Jellema, Roderick. Peter De Vries: A Critical Essay. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1966. This monograph in the Contemporary Writers in Christian Perspective series includes a critical study of De Vries’ first eight novels. This study points to the religious issues that are often overlooked in discussions of De Vries as a humorist.
Kort, Wesley A. Shriven Selves. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974. Sees De Vries as someone comfortable neither in the community of faith nor outside it.
Sale, Richard B. “An Interview in New York with Peter De Vries.” Studies in the Novel 1 (1969): 364-369. This interview touches on De Vries’ writing habits and includes questions about the type of humor in his novels and his view of the world. De Vries discusses the question of whether he is a black humorist.
Yagoda, Ben. “Being Seriously Funny.” The New York Times Magazine, June 12, 1983, 42-44. A feature article that presents a portrait of De Vries and an overview of his literary career. Yagoda’s article offers a good introduction to the writer and his work.
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