Peter DeVries William B. Hill - Essay

William B. Hill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Peter DeVries has a talent which is almost unique, a talent which has made him the cleverest parodist of our time: the ability to put on those mental characteristics which give a writer or performer his style. He exhibits this talent for many pages at the beginning of [Madder Music] as his protagonist, Robert Swirling, suffers under the delusion that he is Groucho Marx—well, suffer is scarcely the word, since Swirling finds the life of Groucho most congenial. Eventually, he is cured—and when circumstances drive him into a relapse, he reappears not as Groucho but as W. C. Fields.

In between the marvelous imitations runs the story of Swirling's chaotic life. The redemptive force saving him from his first aberration is also the force which drives him into his relapse. Like other DeVries heroes, he is drawn from a splendid wife into a series of awkward adulteries which destroy his marriage. The incidents are not so humorous as the near-misses of the early DeVries novels; Swirling is sometimes too pitiful to be laughable….

There are no cosmic overtones such as one has come to expect of DeVries, except in some slick summaries of attitudes towards sin. Yet there is much deft irony as the author lands his hero in one ludicrous situation after another, each of them showing one of the little follies which men take seriously. The book is slightly painful in that Swirling is ultimately frustrating: the reader must sympathize with him, and he turns out to be utterly ineffectual.

Here, as elsewhere, DeVries lets the reader look through his cold and penetrating gaze; the vision is clear, funny, and a little frightening. (p. 339)

William B. Hill, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1978 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), February, 1978.