Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The novel is a literary pastiche, echoing and parodying most of the major writers of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This technique, a virtuoso performance in which De Vries always delights, contributes to the book’s humor, but it has a deeper significance as well, for the novel reveals the danger of taking literature too seriously as a guide to life. Swallow, Beth Appleyard, and Nickie Sherman all base their lives on literary models, and all are betrayed by their texts. The parodies thus warn the reader not to take even serious literature too seriously.

Modern literature is an inadequate guide to life because it is the product of the imagination unrooted in reality. In its distrust of the unbridled imagination, The Tents of Wickedness is reminiscent of Samuel Johnson. Swallow persuades himself that he has been transformed into a pig and offers extended psychological explanations for the change. In fact, he suffers from an acute case of trichinosis. Nevertheless, he cannot recognize the nature of his malady: When he looks in the mirror he does not see reality. Beth Appleyard and Nickie Sherman cannot cope with life as long as they hide behind literary personas.

De Vries himself revels in bizarre coincidences and unusual lives, but he warns that such singularity leads to unhappiness. He distinguishes between pleasure, which one may obtain momentarily by violating society’s norms, and happiness, which is less intense but more enduring, and is obtainable only by living conventionally. Such adherence to societal norms is for De Vries not confining but the reverse. As he writes, “Conformity is after all the broad highway—it’s the way of the transgressor that’s strait and narrow.”

He thus quarrels with modern literature for its rejection of conformity and conformists. Coming as it did at the end of the “beat” generation, The Tents of Wickedness rejects the Bohemian existence. It parodies the literary idols of Greenwich Village as well as those who worship them. The brief segment of the novel set in New York, closely modeled as it is on The Great Gatsby (1925), reveals the fatal lunacy of those who fail to conform. The nonconformist is not more but less imaginative; his way of life is not a sign of genius but of mediocrity.