Peter DeVries Max Byrd - Essay

Max Byrd

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Mackerel Plaza … is at once Peter DeVries' funniest and most characteristic novel, the loveliest jewel in the whole remarkable strand of his achievement. Immensely successful among mere readers, DeVries' work has been conspicuously overlooked by academicians and by the more solemn ideologists of contemporary literature. What he offers, however, that is missing from such celebrities as Thomas Pynchon or John Hawkes are modesty, humor, warmth, intelligibility. What he may be thought to lack in comparison is high seriousness (and perhaps a certain gratuitous obscurity). Like all genuinely funny writers, DeVries lulls our critical instincts. Nonetheless he projects a vision no less complete, no less interesting, no less insistent for being also comic.

The opening of The Mackerel Plaza, for example, sets briskly in motion a number of themes—the forward-thinking, back-sliding minister; the collision of literary styles like billboards and sermons; the irritably rational communication of males undercut by women; the displacement of religious values by what he elsewhere calls "Freudianity"—and as the book proceeds, we realize, they continue to swim mysteriously in and out of view, circling constantly and effortlessly, like fish in a bowl. Most followers will recognize these themes as typically DeVriesian…. Where Thurber's women loom menacingly above his cowering males, shrewish commandos dressing down the craven-hearted, DeVries' women dominate more subtly. They allure, they fascinate, they contrive. Emphatically sex objects—" She was naked except for skin, blouse, underthings, stockings, and shoes," Mackerel observes—they provoke his men to involuntary, fatalistic wooing, and the plots of his novels tend to suggest Walpurgisnacht in suburbia, an off-beat but rhythmical dance of approaches and retreats.

His men like to court with language. Parodies, quotations, aphorisms are their plumage, and everyone thinks of DeVries' novels first in terms of their wisecracks: "She was a thin, frail bulldozer of a woman." "Horticulture is nine-tenths destruction." "He's one of those doctors...

(The entire section is 879 words.)