Sauce for the Goose
No matter what the specific content of his novels, Peter De Vries writes with wit and humor and, nearly always, of the desperate strategies with which unhappy, unmoored American men and women, chiefly of the affluent classes, attempt to disguise, if not palliate, the triviality and emptiness of their lives. More often than not, De Vries’s novels imply positive values absent from his characters’ aimless and frenetic experiences, and he hints that what they need to fill the void is as simple a thing as faith. It becomes increasingly clear in Sauce for the Goose (the prolific and trenchant humorist’s twentieth novel, depending on which list you consult) that De Vries has in mind old-fashioned religious faith, though recognizing the realities of mid-century life and the difficulties of fiction, he never allows his characters to break through to a conversion. Their denials, however, sometimes indicate their dissatisfaction in the absence of belief.
Toward the end of Sauce for the Goose, the protagonist Daisy Dobbin, her career and personal life in shambles, passes the time in her father’s hospital room by reading an “unpublishable novel.” De Vries observes that the woman in the unpublishable novel “was turning to religion on page a hundred and twelve.” He adds, “That was, for Daisy, a window on which intellect had forever drawn the shutter.”
Daisy’s sometime lover, Dirk Dolfin, an international businessman trained for the Dutch Reformed clergy, whispers to her “sweet nothings” after making love, but “his sweet nothings were among the weightiest things in Christendom.” After making love the first time, he tells her the distinction between supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism. The second time, “he murmured some more church history, elucidating doctrines grimmer, if possible, than the last. . . .”
Another of De Vries’s comic devices functions also to keep the reader aware of the need for belief, or the trappings of belief. When Daisy “sins” against her feminist doctrines, or otherwise lapses from the standards she sets for herself, she mentally assigns penances—sometimes ten Hail Marys, sometimes five Our Fathers, or Ten Gloria Steinems, Betty Friedans. Thus, though Daisy Dobbin is herself ironically distanced from the practice of religion or serious thought about it, De Vries suggests the substitution of feminism for Christianity—and he suggests the need for belief. Like most fine humorists, De Vries keeps a steady eye on the darker side of life; he recognizes that comedy deals with matters of life and death. The epigraph to Tents of Wickedness (1959) pointed up his awareness of the tradition of “serious humor,” for it read: “You must not think me necessarily foolish because I am facetious, nor will I consider you necessarily wise because you are grave.”
The epigraph to Sauce for the Goose is appropriately a poem by Elinor Wylie (1885-1928) which wryly sums up the state of being both human and woman. The poem begins with the hope not to confuse oneself with either eagle or antelope. As a human, the poet says, one is born alone; as a woman, one is hard beset and lives by squeezing nourishment from a stone. Still, though “the years go by in single file,” Wylie says none “has merited my fear/ and none has quite escaped my smile.” The irony of the verse and the circumstances of Wylie’s unconventional life in the 1920’s make the epigraph doubly significant.
De Vries’s publisher rightly denies that Sauce for the Goose is “a satire on women’s lib,” though, at first, one has the uncomfortable feeling that the book is willfully setting up situations to make legitimate feminist protest appear both shabby and trivial. The bare bones of the plot support such a reading, but bare bones rarely represent a good book to advantage. De Vries’s very exuberance assures that he will not single-mindedly reduce any aspect of America’s makeshift culture and morality to simplistic terms. As a novelist, he makes sure that he sets up no straw men, and, if he raises a smile at the sometimes excessive ardor of feminists, he also ridicules their opponents. Enough funny things happen in this book and enough targets are sighted and hit that feminism can be said to take its proper place as part of the American culture of the 1970’s.
Daisy Dobbin, a highly verbal and caustic child of average, nutty parents in Terre Haute, emerges from Kidderminster College, her head filled with considerable erudition imparted by various “dehydrated old parties” (dop’s) and is writing for a Long Island paper. At the urging of her college classmate Bobsy Deisel (who dresses like a stevedore, smokes panatelas, and can sing in two registers at once—“a laryngeal fluke”), Daisy undertakes to infiltrate New York publishing houses to expose the widespread practice of sexual harassment. At her first job, she attracts the interest of no one but an earnest soul who inquires if she has “made a decision yet.” When she asks about what, the...
(The entire section is 2080 words.)