Commentary Magazine


Topic: comic literature

On Satire

Monday’s review of They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? — Christopher Buckley’s ninth political satire — raises the question of just what satire is. Trouble is, no one is really sure. The term has become a verbal shrug (“You know?”) for any kind of fiction at all with a humorous smack. As George Meredith famously said in his Essay on Comedy (1877), “If you detect the ridicule, and your kindliness is chilled by it, you are slipping into the grasp of Satire.” At its most precise, then, satire denotes humor that is mean as distinguished from humor that is nice. Peter De Vries advanced a similiar distinction in his novel Sauce for the Goose (1981):

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 prey back dead, true, but some mangled it in purveyance while others did not.

If De Vries is to be believed, however (and no one understood the use of humor in fiction any better than he), the distinction belongs to satire instead of blocking it off from other types of humor. And De Vries has got to be right, because not all satirists are chilling meanies (Christopher Buckley, for example, is warm-hearted toward his prey).

The question about satire is an ancient one, and I have no intention of rehearsing history’s answers. Mainly because they have been remarkably uniform, from Diomedes Grammaticus in the 4th century B.C.E. (quoted by Dryden in the Discourse on Satire), who said that “Satire amongst the Romans but not amongst the Greeks, was a biting invective poem, made after the model of the ancient comedy, for the reprehension of vices,” all the way down to Stephen Greenblatt, who characterizes it in Critical Terms for Literary Study (1990) as the kind of literature explicitly engaged in attack. Literary history stands united. Satire is fiction that delivers a good bitch slap.

Who am I to stand athwart history? But I would like to observe that two errors result from the uniform confusion of satire with biting humor. First, fiction that is not satirical is subjected to misunderstanding. (The best example of a first-rate novelist who has suffered from the confusion is Francine Prose.) Second, the element of humor, which is not the dominant note in satire, no matter what the critics think, is overemphasized, leading to misinterpretation of a different sort.

WTF? Satire is not supposed to be funny? Only a pompous fool or a turgid academic (but I repeat myself) would arrive at such a conclusion! Don’t get me wrong: a satirist has to make his readers laugh. Otherwise there’s no reason to read him in the first place. But that’s not all he is supposed to do. That’s not even the main thing. The German romantic novelist Jean Paul (a.k.a. Johann Paul Friedrich Richter) explains:

A satire on everything is a satire on nothing; it is mere absurdity. All contempt, all disrespect, implies something respected, as a standard to which it is referred; just as every valley implies a hill.

This is why the view of satire as ridicule or biting invective or attack is upside-down. Despite outward appearances, satire is fundamentally affirmative, even if its methods are not. De Vries quoted Robert Frost in support of the notion: “If it is with outer seriousness, it must be with inner humor. If it is with outer humor, it must be with inner seriousness. Neither one alone without the other under it will do.”

Satire’s principal method is what in philosophy is called the reductio, the reduction of an idea or attitude to absurdity. But as Jean Paul points out, the satire itself cannot be an absurdity, or nothing is accomplished. (There in a sentence is the weakness of Sacha Baron Cohen’s “satire.”) The satirist reduces his puffed-up targets to absurdity, because he wants to clear the ground for a more durable standard of meaning. If he could describe it with outer seriousness, rather than mocking its competitors with outer humor, he’d probably do so. But he writes the best way he can, and avoids what is beyond his capacities. “I have recently read a couple of serious-type articles about what I am actually up to,” De Vries said, “and I can only conclude that my stuff is really over my head.”

What, then, distinguishes satire from other varieties of fiction and other types of humor? The definition in the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is the best, because it is the cleanest: Satire is caricature joined to literary form. Other varieties of fiction depend upon characterization rather than caricature; other types of humor dispense with literary form (plot, scene, meter). Satire is a genre of serious literature which keeps its seriousness carefully concealed like a weapon of last resort. Bitch slaps are optional: they are a technique, not a genre.

Monday’s review of They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? — Christopher Buckley’s ninth political satire — raises the question of just what satire is. Trouble is, no one is really sure. The term has become a verbal shrug (“You know?”) for any kind of fiction at all with a humorous smack. As George Meredith famously said in his Essay on Comedy (1877), “If you detect the ridicule, and your kindliness is chilled by it, you are slipping into the grasp of Satire.” At its most precise, then, satire denotes humor that is mean as distinguished from humor that is nice. Peter De Vries advanced a similiar distinction in his novel Sauce for the Goose (1981):

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 prey back dead, true, but some mangled it in purveyance while others did not.

If De Vries is to be believed, however (and no one understood the use of humor in fiction any better than he), the distinction belongs to satire instead of blocking it off from other types of humor. And De Vries has got to be right, because not all satirists are chilling meanies (Christopher Buckley, for example, is warm-hearted toward his prey).

The question about satire is an ancient one, and I have no intention of rehearsing history’s answers. Mainly because they have been remarkably uniform, from Diomedes Grammaticus in the 4th century B.C.E. (quoted by Dryden in the Discourse on Satire), who said that “Satire amongst the Romans but not amongst the Greeks, was a biting invective poem, made after the model of the ancient comedy, for the reprehension of vices,” all the way down to Stephen Greenblatt, who characterizes it in Critical Terms for Literary Study (1990) as the kind of literature explicitly engaged in attack. Literary history stands united. Satire is fiction that delivers a good bitch slap.

Who am I to stand athwart history? But I would like to observe that two errors result from the uniform confusion of satire with biting humor. First, fiction that is not satirical is subjected to misunderstanding. (The best example of a first-rate novelist who has suffered from the confusion is Francine Prose.) Second, the element of humor, which is not the dominant note in satire, no matter what the critics think, is overemphasized, leading to misinterpretation of a different sort.

WTF? Satire is not supposed to be funny? Only a pompous fool or a turgid academic (but I repeat myself) would arrive at such a conclusion! Don’t get me wrong: a satirist has to make his readers laugh. Otherwise there’s no reason to read him in the first place. But that’s not all he is supposed to do. That’s not even the main thing. The German romantic novelist Jean Paul (a.k.a. Johann Paul Friedrich Richter) explains:

A satire on everything is a satire on nothing; it is mere absurdity. All contempt, all disrespect, implies something respected, as a standard to which it is referred; just as every valley implies a hill.

This is why the view of satire as ridicule or biting invective or attack is upside-down. Despite outward appearances, satire is fundamentally affirmative, even if its methods are not. De Vries quoted Robert Frost in support of the notion: “If it is with outer seriousness, it must be with inner humor. If it is with outer humor, it must be with inner seriousness. Neither one alone without the other under it will do.”

Satire’s principal method is what in philosophy is called the reductio, the reduction of an idea or attitude to absurdity. But as Jean Paul points out, the satire itself cannot be an absurdity, or nothing is accomplished. (There in a sentence is the weakness of Sacha Baron Cohen’s “satire.”) The satirist reduces his puffed-up targets to absurdity, because he wants to clear the ground for a more durable standard of meaning. If he could describe it with outer seriousness, rather than mocking its competitors with outer humor, he’d probably do so. But he writes the best way he can, and avoids what is beyond his capacities. “I have recently read a couple of serious-type articles about what I am actually up to,” De Vries said, “and I can only conclude that my stuff is really over my head.”

What, then, distinguishes satire from other varieties of fiction and other types of humor? The definition in the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is the best, because it is the cleanest: Satire is caricature joined to literary form. Other varieties of fiction depend upon characterization rather than caricature; other types of humor dispense with literary form (plot, scene, meter). Satire is a genre of serious literature which keeps its seriousness carefully concealed like a weapon of last resort. Bitch slaps are optional: they are a technique, not a genre.

Read Less

Review: Who Killed the Dalai Lama?

Christopher Buckley, They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? (New York: Twelve, 2012). 352 pages. $25.99.

“They happened to get lucky — real lucky — with their timing,” a CIA official says of the co-conspirators at the heart of Christopher Buckley’s latest novel. Exactly the same can be said of Buckley. His ninth novel was in press, its dog-chomping title decided upon long before, when Jim Treacher of the Daily Caller broke the story that Barack Obama had boasted of eating “dog meat (tough)” as a boy, and the #ObamaEatsDog meme went viral. Then, just days after Buckley hit the bookstores with a new book that satirized the expensive sport of dressage (among other things), the New York Times obliged him with a 2,200-word front page story on Ann Romney’s immersion in “in the elite world of riding.”

You can’t buy that kind of publicity. Not that Buckley needs it. He may be the best comic novelist now writing in America, perhaps the best since Peter De Vries. His most celebrated novel is probably Thank You for Smoking (1994), a satire on the tobacco lobby and anti-tobacco zealots, which was filmed by Jason Reitman nine years later. I prefer Little Green Men (1999), his tale of a TV talk-show host who is abducted by aliens from a golf course.

The only child of William F. Buckley Jr., he was a speechwriter for Vice President George Bush before getting out of politics to mock it in hilarious restrained prose. The White House Mess, a 1986 parody of White House memoirs, established from the start of his career that Buckley had perfect pitch for the mendacious sincerity of Washington, D.C. Above all his characters want to preserve a reputation for high principle and upright conscience, even if everything they say reveals that they are, as Nick Naylor puts it in Thank You for Smoking — his second novel — “unholier than thou.” After God Is My Broker (1998), a caricature of self-help books that was cowritten with the science reporter John Tierney, Buckley knocked out a string of six political satires over the next 13 years. His targets included White House sex scandals, Islamism, bloggers, and the Supreme Court nomination circus.

In They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? the 59-year-old Buckley trains his sights upon China and especially America’s anxious relationship with China. In Washington, a defense contractor observes, “[t]hey’re more nervous about China than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.” Which makes life difficult for defense contractors, who only want to sell weapons to the government so that Americans can “sleep a lot more soundly.” Chick Devlin, head of the munitions giant Groepping-Sprunt (no one is better than Buckley at deflating an entire industry with one made-up name), hatches a plot to “gin up a little anti-China mojo.” As he explains to Walter “Bird” MacIntyre, his chief lobbyist:

“Last time I checked, their flag was flaming Communist red. Yes, I believe the time has come to educate the great dumb American public — God love them — to educate them about the . . .” — Chick paused, as if searching for just the right word — “the peril we as a nation face from from a nation of one point three billion foreigners. . . . If we can do that, then those limp dicks and fainting hearts and imbeciles in the United States Congress — God love them — will follow.”

Bird enlists the help of Angel Templeton, a dead ringer for Ann Coulter. “Tall, blond, buff, leggy, miniskirted,” Angel chairs the Institute for Continuing Conflict, which its detractors call the Institute for Never-Ending War. It is headquarters for “the so-called Oreo-Cons—‘Hard on the outside, soft on the inside.’ ” These are hawks who do not much care what Congress does “so long as they kept the Pentagon and the armed forces well funded and engaged abroad, preferably in hand-to-hand combat.” No one is more anti-China than Angel Templeton:

Am I the only person in this town who’s tired of hearing that the twenty-first century is going to be ‘the Chinese Century’? Could someone tell me — please — why America, the greatest country in history, only gets one century? And by the way, who decided this was going to be their century? Some thumb-sucking professor at Yale? Please.

Together Bird and Angel cook up a scheme. They plant the rumor that Beijing is out to murder the Dalai Lama. “You know the saying,” Bird tells Angel, “ ‘You can fool some of the people some of the time — and those are the one you need to concentrate on’?” The Dalai Lama collapses on his way to a meeting with the Pope. In the hospital in Rome, he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. He is given two months to live. But here the plot thickens. The medical report is stolen by the Chinese government, who keep the Dalai Lama’s condition a secret. The director of Chinese intelligence explains why: “Once he learns that he’s dying, he’s sure to petition to be allowed to return to Tibet.” And that the Chinese cannot permit.

They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? then becomes a fast-paced plot and counter-plot and counter-counter-plot involving not just Bird and Angel but the Chinese Politburo at its highest level and the inner bowels of the National Security Council to boot. Everyone, it seems, would prefer to see the Dalai Lama dead — the Chinese to remove the face and symbol of anti-China resistance, the Americans to blame the Chinese. And when the Dalai Lama finally dies, it is not clear if the cancer killed him, or if he was murdered; and if so, by whom. Buckley makes great use of the story’s twisting back-and-forth, not merely as a supporting medium for his tickling one-liners, but as a source of humor in its own right. National governments are basically spy agencies, he seems to be implying: plotting against enemies foreign, domestic, and inter-agency is the principal form of government work.

It is Bird’s wife Myndi, incidentally, who is into what he calls “the horse thing.” She is trying out for the American equestrian team which will compete for the Tang Cup in Xi’an, China. When her mare injures a tendon, she asks Bird for a $225,000 replacement mount. “The bloodlines are stunning,” she reassures him. “The House of Windsor doesn’t have bloodlines like this.” Bird balks at the price; Myndi gets angry. “Look,” she says — “we agreed when I decided to try out for the team that we were going to do this together.” Bird is struck by her conception of togetherness: “She’d compete for a place on the U.S. Equestrian Team and he would write the checks.” As for him, Bird’s avocation is writing novels — absurd techno-thrillers in the manner of Tom Clancy, to whom Buckley has long acted the part of scourge. When Angel teases him about his unpublished tetralogy, Bird explodes: “What is it with you people? Is being a novelist considered some kind of disability?”

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Buckley’s novel is its tone of quiet respect, even reverence, for Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th and current Dalai Lama. Along with Chris Matthews, he is the only character in the book to appear under his own name. “Americans love the guy,” Bird says. “The whole world loves him. What’s not to love? He’s a seventy-five-year-old sweetie pie with glasses, plus the sandals and the saffron robe and the hugging and the mandalas and the peace and harmony and the reincarnation and nirvana. All that. We can’t get enough of him.” In fact, Buckley gives little of him — but the little he gives is deeply moving. Not just for the reader, but for the characters in the novel too. Everyone who comes in contact with him is affected by him. Without any sermonizing at all, Buckley offers a serene and alluring image of anti-politics — the life of religion, which gives meaning to human conduct. Although he fires off a few zingers about public figures (“The vice president’s tongue is several time zones ahead of his brain,” the Chinese Foreign Minister says of a character who resembles Joe Biden), Buckley is more interested in more substantial figures.

The powerful example of the Dalai Lama accounts for Buckley’s own political attitudes in his latest novel. Ever since he famously broke with his father’s old magazine the National Review by announcing that he would vote for Barack Obama, Buckley has had a testy relationship with American conservatism. They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? is his first novel since the 2008 election. Its satirical transformation of neocons into “Oreo-Cons” is unlikely to win back many friends on the right. (“Norman Podhoretz?” Angel scoffs at one point. “That’s your definition of a major Jew?”) And a hint of sanctimony creeps into his political reflections early in the novel. The U.S. deployment of “killer drones,” he says,

was stark evidence that somewhere along the line Uncle Sam had quietly morphed into Global Big Brother. With wings. The proud American eagle now clutched in one talon the traditional martial arrows, in the other a remote control.

This is political speech more familiar among the neo-isolationist left. “If we’re really in the endgame of the American experiment,” as one character puts it in They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, for Buckley the cause is not a decline of American power or the loss of American exceptionalism — the cause is a decline of religion and the loss of religious influence like the Dalai Lama’s. If Christopher Buckley remains a conservative, in other words, he is a conservative in the mold of Whittaker Chambers. The difference is that he laughs at American politics while he retreats from it, and gets the rest of us to laugh at it too. “How sad it would be if our people saw what was going on in the world,” the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party says wryly when news of the Dalai Lama’s death is blocked at China’s borders. In Buckley’s fiction, what goes on in the world is less comic than what goes on outside its view — less meaningful too.

Christopher Buckley, They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? (New York: Twelve, 2012). 352 pages. $25.99.

“They happened to get lucky — real lucky — with their timing,” a CIA official says of the co-conspirators at the heart of Christopher Buckley’s latest novel. Exactly the same can be said of Buckley. His ninth novel was in press, its dog-chomping title decided upon long before, when Jim Treacher of the Daily Caller broke the story that Barack Obama had boasted of eating “dog meat (tough)” as a boy, and the #ObamaEatsDog meme went viral. Then, just days after Buckley hit the bookstores with a new book that satirized the expensive sport of dressage (among other things), the New York Times obliged him with a 2,200-word front page story on Ann Romney’s immersion in “in the elite world of riding.”

You can’t buy that kind of publicity. Not that Buckley needs it. He may be the best comic novelist now writing in America, perhaps the best since Peter De Vries. His most celebrated novel is probably Thank You for Smoking (1994), a satire on the tobacco lobby and anti-tobacco zealots, which was filmed by Jason Reitman nine years later. I prefer Little Green Men (1999), his tale of a TV talk-show host who is abducted by aliens from a golf course.

The only child of William F. Buckley Jr., he was a speechwriter for Vice President George Bush before getting out of politics to mock it in hilarious restrained prose. The White House Mess, a 1986 parody of White House memoirs, established from the start of his career that Buckley had perfect pitch for the mendacious sincerity of Washington, D.C. Above all his characters want to preserve a reputation for high principle and upright conscience, even if everything they say reveals that they are, as Nick Naylor puts it in Thank You for Smoking — his second novel — “unholier than thou.” After God Is My Broker (1998), a caricature of self-help books that was cowritten with the science reporter John Tierney, Buckley knocked out a string of six political satires over the next 13 years. His targets included White House sex scandals, Islamism, bloggers, and the Supreme Court nomination circus.

In They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? the 59-year-old Buckley trains his sights upon China and especially America’s anxious relationship with China. In Washington, a defense contractor observes, “[t]hey’re more nervous about China than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.” Which makes life difficult for defense contractors, who only want to sell weapons to the government so that Americans can “sleep a lot more soundly.” Chick Devlin, head of the munitions giant Groepping-Sprunt (no one is better than Buckley at deflating an entire industry with one made-up name), hatches a plot to “gin up a little anti-China mojo.” As he explains to Walter “Bird” MacIntyre, his chief lobbyist:

“Last time I checked, their flag was flaming Communist red. Yes, I believe the time has come to educate the great dumb American public — God love them — to educate them about the . . .” — Chick paused, as if searching for just the right word — “the peril we as a nation face from from a nation of one point three billion foreigners. . . . If we can do that, then those limp dicks and fainting hearts and imbeciles in the United States Congress — God love them — will follow.”

Bird enlists the help of Angel Templeton, a dead ringer for Ann Coulter. “Tall, blond, buff, leggy, miniskirted,” Angel chairs the Institute for Continuing Conflict, which its detractors call the Institute for Never-Ending War. It is headquarters for “the so-called Oreo-Cons—‘Hard on the outside, soft on the inside.’ ” These are hawks who do not much care what Congress does “so long as they kept the Pentagon and the armed forces well funded and engaged abroad, preferably in hand-to-hand combat.” No one is more anti-China than Angel Templeton:

Am I the only person in this town who’s tired of hearing that the twenty-first century is going to be ‘the Chinese Century’? Could someone tell me — please — why America, the greatest country in history, only gets one century? And by the way, who decided this was going to be their century? Some thumb-sucking professor at Yale? Please.

Together Bird and Angel cook up a scheme. They plant the rumor that Beijing is out to murder the Dalai Lama. “You know the saying,” Bird tells Angel, “ ‘You can fool some of the people some of the time — and those are the one you need to concentrate on’?” The Dalai Lama collapses on his way to a meeting with the Pope. In the hospital in Rome, he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. He is given two months to live. But here the plot thickens. The medical report is stolen by the Chinese government, who keep the Dalai Lama’s condition a secret. The director of Chinese intelligence explains why: “Once he learns that he’s dying, he’s sure to petition to be allowed to return to Tibet.” And that the Chinese cannot permit.

They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? then becomes a fast-paced plot and counter-plot and counter-counter-plot involving not just Bird and Angel but the Chinese Politburo at its highest level and the inner bowels of the National Security Council to boot. Everyone, it seems, would prefer to see the Dalai Lama dead — the Chinese to remove the face and symbol of anti-China resistance, the Americans to blame the Chinese. And when the Dalai Lama finally dies, it is not clear if the cancer killed him, or if he was murdered; and if so, by whom. Buckley makes great use of the story’s twisting back-and-forth, not merely as a supporting medium for his tickling one-liners, but as a source of humor in its own right. National governments are basically spy agencies, he seems to be implying: plotting against enemies foreign, domestic, and inter-agency is the principal form of government work.

It is Bird’s wife Myndi, incidentally, who is into what he calls “the horse thing.” She is trying out for the American equestrian team which will compete for the Tang Cup in Xi’an, China. When her mare injures a tendon, she asks Bird for a $225,000 replacement mount. “The bloodlines are stunning,” she reassures him. “The House of Windsor doesn’t have bloodlines like this.” Bird balks at the price; Myndi gets angry. “Look,” she says — “we agreed when I decided to try out for the team that we were going to do this together.” Bird is struck by her conception of togetherness: “She’d compete for a place on the U.S. Equestrian Team and he would write the checks.” As for him, Bird’s avocation is writing novels — absurd techno-thrillers in the manner of Tom Clancy, to whom Buckley has long acted the part of scourge. When Angel teases him about his unpublished tetralogy, Bird explodes: “What is it with you people? Is being a novelist considered some kind of disability?”

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Buckley’s novel is its tone of quiet respect, even reverence, for Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th and current Dalai Lama. Along with Chris Matthews, he is the only character in the book to appear under his own name. “Americans love the guy,” Bird says. “The whole world loves him. What’s not to love? He’s a seventy-five-year-old sweetie pie with glasses, plus the sandals and the saffron robe and the hugging and the mandalas and the peace and harmony and the reincarnation and nirvana. All that. We can’t get enough of him.” In fact, Buckley gives little of him — but the little he gives is deeply moving. Not just for the reader, but for the characters in the novel too. Everyone who comes in contact with him is affected by him. Without any sermonizing at all, Buckley offers a serene and alluring image of anti-politics — the life of religion, which gives meaning to human conduct. Although he fires off a few zingers about public figures (“The vice president’s tongue is several time zones ahead of his brain,” the Chinese Foreign Minister says of a character who resembles Joe Biden), Buckley is more interested in more substantial figures.

The powerful example of the Dalai Lama accounts for Buckley’s own political attitudes in his latest novel. Ever since he famously broke with his father’s old magazine the National Review by announcing that he would vote for Barack Obama, Buckley has had a testy relationship with American conservatism. They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? is his first novel since the 2008 election. Its satirical transformation of neocons into “Oreo-Cons” is unlikely to win back many friends on the right. (“Norman Podhoretz?” Angel scoffs at one point. “That’s your definition of a major Jew?”) And a hint of sanctimony creeps into his political reflections early in the novel. The U.S. deployment of “killer drones,” he says,

was stark evidence that somewhere along the line Uncle Sam had quietly morphed into Global Big Brother. With wings. The proud American eagle now clutched in one talon the traditional martial arrows, in the other a remote control.

This is political speech more familiar among the neo-isolationist left. “If we’re really in the endgame of the American experiment,” as one character puts it in They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, for Buckley the cause is not a decline of American power or the loss of American exceptionalism — the cause is a decline of religion and the loss of religious influence like the Dalai Lama’s. If Christopher Buckley remains a conservative, in other words, he is a conservative in the mold of Whittaker Chambers. The difference is that he laughs at American politics while he retreats from it, and gets the rest of us to laugh at it too. “How sad it would be if our people saw what was going on in the world,” the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party says wryly when news of the Dalai Lama’s death is blocked at China’s borders. In Buckley’s fiction, what goes on in the world is less comic than what goes on outside its view — less meaningful too.

Read Less

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.
____________________

* 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.”

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.
____________________

* 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.”

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