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Peter De Vries

Over the weekend a friend asked why Peter De Vries seems to have disappeared from America’s literary consciousness. A good question. I didn’t have an answer.

De Vries is one of the best comic novelists that America has ever produced, and comic novelists do poorly over the long run of literary history. Other than Mark Twain, Ring Lardner, and perhaps Dawn Powell, Americans have tended to discard their humorists after a generation. Josh Billings, Petroleum V. Nasby, Ambrose Bierce, George Ade, Finley Peter Dunne, Will Cuppy, James Thurber, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Wolcott Gibbs, E. B. White, Harry Golden, S. J. Perelman, H. Allen Smith, Leonard Q. Ross — these are names from a textbook, not living writers (except for a few hardened followers).

Like many of the comic writers who were well-known in their day, De Vries wrote for the New Yorker. Unlike many of them, though, he wrote novels. Lots of novels — 25 in all. “Every good novel,” he said, “must have a beginning, a muddle, and an end.” He thought of himself as a novelist, and so he kept writing and publishing novels, nearly to the end. (His last novel, Peckham’s Marbles, appeared when he was 76. He died, 18 years ago tomorrow, at the age of 83.)

De Vries also wrote a special kind of humor, filled with puns and plays on words and inversions of popular clichés and famous sayings. His literary reputation, in fact, consists mainly these days in lists of humorous quotations (here, for example, and here and here). De Vries developed a taste for verbal humor while working on a community newspaper in Chicago after leaving school. “The result,” he told an interviewer:

I truly enjoy local, homespun philosophers. Right on top of that I actually did write Pepigrams [e.g., “To turn stumbling blocks into stepping stones — pick up your feet”], for use as wall mottoes and such. I got two bucks a Pepigram, and they got stuck in my blood.

As funny as he is in his quotable throwaway lines, DeVries is not a standup comic in prose. His plots are twisting and ingenious, and he is even funnier in phrasing that twists and shapes a scene. Finding himself on a bus next to “some damn secretary-treasurer” of “something like an organization of madrigal buffs, or the Society for the Prevention of Deplorable Conditions,” the narrator of Consenting Adults; or, The Duchess Will Be Furious (1980) starts in chafing her:

     “Going far?” I said to the woman I’ll call Mrs. Fondue, striking up a “conversation.”
     “Just to Allentown.”
     “That’s a nice town. I once met somebody who lived there, and if he was typical of your element, it leaves nothing to be desired.”

When she fails to catch his meaning, he begins to deliver an impromptu lecture about Albert Tinkham Ryder, the late 19th-century painter. He goes on and on about Ryder’s personal eccentricities (“he slept huddled beneath piles of threadbare overcoats on a floor heaped a foot and a half to two feet high, authorities differ, with assorted filth”) and the “mystic quality” of his paintings. “The woman now looked as though she was definitely going to bolt out of her seat and report me to the driver,” the narrator comments. “He would make a citizen’s arrest and hustle me to headquarters, where I would be lucky to get off with any charge less than aggravated erudition.”

There was a sharpened edge to his humor, especially in his later work, that was not kindly. But De Vries was aware of what he was doing. In his anti-feminist novel Sauce for the Goose (1981), he explains:

Mrs. Dobbin had once read an article on humor in one of the magazines with smooth complexions, which analyzed satire by sorting its practitioners into two classes. Satirists were either soft-mouthed or hard-mouthed. They both brought their pray back dead, true, but some mangled it in purveyance while others did not. Retrievers — such as Frank had been hilariously imitating . . . — retrievers were soft-mouthed, so trained.

De Vries never mangled his prey, but it was sure to be dead when he brought it back. He began his career in the Forties, but did not find his rhythm until the mid-Fifties, when he began to write about suburban Connecticut. The Tunnel of Love was his fifth published book, but his first “mature” work. It is about a “third-rate artist in whom a first-rate gagman is trying to claw his way out.” Baffled in his efforts to create “serious” art, he jumps on the carousel of extramarital affairs. “Affairs are like watermelons,” the narrator remarks. “They leave more mess than they are worth.” The story was filmed in 1958 with Richard Widmark and Doris Day in the starring roles and Gene Kelly in the director’s chair.

The best of his early novels is The Mackerel Plaza (1958), the send-up of a liberal Protestant clergyman who occupies the pulpit of “the first split-level church in America.” (De Vries himself was born into the Dutch Reformed Church, and saw himself as the last of America’s Puritan writers — although he was a Puritan who could not keep a straight face.) De Vries’s pastor is uncomfortable around some of his parishioners. As he says of one: “He had one characteristic that I always find it hard to cope with, piety.” De Vries has great fun dismantling the pastor’s liberal pretensions. And in doing so, he turns out one of the greatest religious novels — one of the few truly religious novels — ever written in America. It was quickly followed by The Tents of Wickedness (1959), a masterpiece of parody in which Emily Dickinson and Dylan Thomas (to say nothing of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Proust, Dreiser, Joyce, and Kafka) get what is coming to them.

Everything changed for De Vries in September 1960 when his youngest child Emily died of acute lymphoblastic leukemia just a few days before her 11th birthday. Two years later he transmuted tragedy into desperately funny sadness. The Blood of the Lamb is like nothing that De Vries — or anyone else, for that matter — had ever written before. It has been nicely described elsewhere by Ian Wolcott.* The novel marked a change of direction, a change of tone, for De Vries. (Reissued by the University of Chicago Press, it is one of only two De Vries novels to remain in print.) The later novels are much harder on their satirical targets, although De Vries never lost a sense of charity even toward those he found ridiculous.

Four decades after her last book, Dawn Powell was honored with a two-volume edition of her novels in the Library of America. The series that exists “to preserve the nation’s cultural heritage by publishing America’s best and most significant writing in authoritative editions” also now includes the sentimental mediocrity Kurt Vonnegut Jr., De Vries’s younger contemporary and a far lesser comic writer. Surely, then, it is time to reprint Peter De Vries. He should not have to wait another two decades for enshrinement. I will gladly volunteer myself to edit a two-volume edition of De Vries’s early novels (The Tunnel of Love, The Mackerel Plaza, The Tents of Wickedness) and later novels (The Blood of the Lamb, Mrs. Wallop, Sauce for the Goose). Anything to keep one of America’s greatest comic novelists from being reduced to pearls of amusing quotations scattered across the internet.
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* In an essay published in the National Review but not available online, Terry Teachout describes The Blood of the Lamb as a “furious tract about the impossibility of religious faith written by a man who wanted desperately to believe. It is also, in places, howlingly funny. This is, to put it mildly, a jolting combination of qualities. . . . [It] reads as though it had been pounded out in a frenzy of grief and rage by a comedian who, for all his horrific suffering, never lost his eye for the grotesqueries and incongruities of human existence.”