The Prick of Noon
The Prick of Noon is Peter De Vries’s twenty-second novel. Longtime fans will recognize the stylistic mannerisms of this work as typical of De Vries’s love of language and deft verbal twists. In its bawdy humor, social criticism, and irreverent (and seemingly irrepressible) puns, malaprops, and double entendres, it is vintage De Vries. The story of Eddie Teeters’ rise and fall is not profound, but it is thought-provoking. Although it lacks the strong religious or moralistic undercurrent of De Vries’s best work, such as The Blood of the Lamb (1962), the author’s wit and irony create a humorous and eminently readable tale.
De Vries employs the time-honored technique of relating his story through the language of an uneducated narrator-protagonist, one who is blind to his own best qualities. As in so many American novels, the protagonist longs to rise from his humble origins to become a respected member of the Eastern Establishment. Eddie Teeters is from Backbone, Arkansas, and has “vowed never to come from there again”; he longs to adopt the casual ways and affected vernacular of the country-club set of Merrymount, Connecticut. A self-described “knight in shiny armor,” he intends to win the heart, or at least the hand, of Cynthia Pickles and thereby move up into the upper middle class. Cynthia epitomizes the “smart set” of “Rolling Acres,” where, as Eddie notes, “men in bleeding madras shorts bounced golf balls off pre-Revolutionary gravestones.” He first encounters her at poolside, racket in hand, and is smitten immediately, both by “the princess” and her “habitat group,” who urbanely discuss little restaurants in Trieste and similar pressing subjects. Eddie wants in, and the novel is his account of his increasingly ludicrous attempts to ingratiate himself with Pickles and Company.
Eddie’s role model and his means of introduction to this smug little group is Jerry Chirouble, a wealthy man who plays at being a publisher. Most of his time, however, is spent over leisurely lunches at the club or giving expensive parties for the moneyed set of Merrymount. Eddie envies Chirouble’s cool nonchalance and smooth one-liners. “Being precocious,” Chirouble comments, “I naturally age very fast as well. In fact, at only twenty-five I was already young at heart.” To Eddie’s uneducated ears and upwardly mobile sensibility, this remark, like Chirouble and Cynthia Pickles, is “sheer class.” Eddie would trade in his birth certificate to be reborn into this rarified society where one can “opine” casually, “everything couched in an epigram and whatnot . Lightly bandying what-do-you-call-it, persiflage and never hurting anybody.”
Through Chirouble, Eddie meets Cynthia Pickles and begins a hilarious courtship. In his eagerness to adopt the mannerisms of Merrymount, however, he inadvertently reveals his down-home upbringing; persiflage is not his strong suit. Still, one cannot help but admire the effort and energy—itself a middle-class trait—with which Eddie tries to climb out of his social station. His air of nonchalance requires much rehearsal; he finds that it takes a lot of sweat to look cool.
In contrast, being cool is a natural state for Cynthia Pickles. “The ice princess,” as a rival for Eddie’s affections terms her, is the essence of what Eddie sees as sophistication. When not discussing favorite restaurants over planter’s punches in her tennis whites, she is busy recruiting investors for her pet project, Overview, a “journal of opinion for all sides.” She has an easy laugh and a facility for inane banalities equaled only by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchanan. She tells Eddie that his “expression of resented alienation” is “most appealing . Don’t boggle at the ’alienation’ either. Alienation is big these days. Without it you have no sense of belonging.” The paradox does not bother Eddie Teeters. He sees only a vision—a beauty whose figure has “the trim concision of a Congregational church,” and Eddie appears ready to believe in God in order to become a member of the congregation.
He soon discovers that sexual conquest is much easier than social acceptance. Marriage is definitely out of the question for the princess, although she casually sleeps with Eddie and wants to continue to see him. He even ingratiates himself with Cynthia’s prissy old stepmother, Mrs. Pickles (who “didn’t think that people who subscribed to the National...
(The entire section is 1845 words.)