How to Appreciate an Exploding Cigar: A Look2 Essay on Peter De Vries
Anthony Burgess called him “one of the great prose virtuosos of modern America.” Harper Lee lauded him as “the Evelyn Waugh of our time.” Kingsley Amis said he was “the funniest serious writer to be found on either side of the Atlantic.” He wrote 27 books plus gobs of stories and essays, collecting two honorary doctorates and a spot in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Yet by 1993, the year of his death, Peter De Vries could not walk into a bookstore and buy one word he had written (well, maybe off the remainder table). A New England writer, he is overshadowed by other New England writers-John Updike, John Cheever, Wallace Stevens. A satirist, he takes a backseat to other satirists—Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, James Thurber, Kurt Vonnegut. A 43-year veteran of The New Yorker, he is less remembered than other New Yorker writers—E. B. White, J. D. Salinger, Truman Capote, Philip Roth, and everyone else, just about. With two of his books, The Blood of the Lamb and Slouching Towards Kalamazoo, back in print thanks to the University of Chicago Press, it seems a good time to look deeper at the person Daniel Dennett called “the funniest writer on religion ever.”
I remember my first time with De Vries (rhymes with “kiss”). It was in August of 1993, the day before my senior year of college. I was driving my girlfriend, Michelle, home when traffic came to a stop. An eighteen-wheeler had overturned, blocking both lanes. The late afternoon sun was nasturtium-orange, and sitting on a mountainside, a valley yawning beneath us, we seemed sky-high, like that bright ball. People were shutting off their cars to stand on the road, and Michelle did the same. We had been to a used bookstore, so I pulled out the book I had just bought, The Prick of Noon by Peter De Vries, which tells the story of Eddie Teeters, a young man who moves from Backbone, Arkansas, to Merrymount, Connecticut, with the hope of charming his way into the upper crust. To that end, he sets his sights on the beautiful socialite Cynthia Pickles.
Eddie woos Cynthia, is rebuffed, tries again, ends up in bed with her, meets her friends, meets her mother, and, thinking himself set for life, buys a big house for them to live in. One problem: Eddie is also Monte Carlo, producer of a line of sexual-technique instructional videos (read: porno flicks), and when the bluenoses of Merrymount find out, he ends up charged with the crime of “transporting obscene material across state lines and through the mails.” He is found guilty, loses his company (while avoiding jail), gets a job as a limo driver, and marries Toby Snapper, a waitress he got pregnant on the rebound from Cynthia, who dumped him earlier for one of those upper-crust friends whose pageantry had attracted Eddie in the first place. It is lost to me now why I bought a book by an unfamiliar writer, but on that standstill summer evening, as I read Eddie’s awkward pursuit of Cynthia, I laughed. Snorted, in fact. When Michelle sat back down in the car, I said, “Here, listen to this.” Two hours later, when traffic finally moved, I was still reading aloud and still laughing. Actually, we both were.
It is time to read Peter De Vries again. Some of his stuff has aged well, and some hasn’t, but this is generally true of comedy. Modern comic writers—Sloane Crosley, Sarah Vowell, Patton Oswalt, Laurie Notaro, Chelsea Handler, and David Sedaris—mostly write “casuals,” short fiction and sketches of the type made famous by New Yorker writers of the 1920s and ’30s. In a world of shrinking attention spans, the comic novel, which has to be funny for 200 or more pages, is a dying breed. De Vries made it look easy. He wrote funny better than Hemingway wrote Hemingwayesque.
And he was more than a farceur. De Vries’ son Derek has mused that his father was “in a lot of pain.” His 1961 novel The Blood of the Lamb, about a man, Don Wanderhope, who suffers one loss after another culminating in his daughter’s death, is often cited as proof of that pain. Did De Vries hurt worse than most people? Hard to say. No memoir, volume of letters, or book-length biography has ever appeared. He was born in Chicago in 1910 into a Dutch immigrant community that, as he told an interviewer in 1964, “still preserved its old-world ways.”
My origins would have been little different had my parents never come to America at all, but remained in Holland. I still feel somewhat like a foreigner, and not only for ethnic reasons. Our insularity was two-fold, being a matter of religion as well as nationality. In addition to being immigrant, and not able to mix well with the Chicago Americans around us, we were Dutch Reformed Calvinists who weren’t supposed to mix—who, in fact, had considerable trouble mixing with one another. We were the elect, and the elect are barred from everything, you know, except heaven.
Calvinists are a hard-working, humorless lot, and young Peter was brought up to avoid most secular pursuits—movies, dancing, playing cards. Sundays saw his family in church, usually all day. Everyone, even the kids, sat around and “engaged in doctrinal disputation.” Such a scene opens Blood. Don Wanderhope’s brother Louie, who “lost his faith during his medical studies at the University of Chicago,” pans religion at every opportunity. At one family gathering, he opines that the biblical account of the virgin birth “was slipped in by a later writer, prolly, after the doctrine had been cooked up by the church,” which gets the hoped-for reaction.
A gasp went around the kitchen table, at which now a small congregation sat. Men stiffened in their black suits, and women shook their heads as heresy darkened into blasphemy. Here under one roof were two candidates for the dread afgescheidenen, a term as dire as “purge” to citizens of a later absolutism. My mother poured coffee with a trembling hand; my nearly blind grandmother, who lived with us at the time, was busily trying to sweep cigar burns in the oilcloth into a crumber; my grandfather went out to the front porch, where he stood scratching himself in a manner said to be depreciating property values. My uncle shook a finger threateningly in Louie’s face. “I’ll pray for you.”
After spending his childhood in church schools, De Vries went to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, finishing in 1931 with a degree not in religion, as his parents had wanted, but in English. He worked odd jobs—candy seller, radio actor, furniture mover, ad copywriter—before selling a few poems to Poetry magazine (yes, that Poetry). By 1938, he was an associate editor, moving up to coeditor in 1942, which let him meet high-profile creative types, like Robert Penn Warren, Frank Lloyd Wright, and James Thurber. De Vries had written an essay, “James Thurber: The Comic Prufrock,” arguing that Thurber had more in common with poets than other humorists. It is a sincere appreciation of Thurber’s literary feats that also wears the robes of lit-crit (“If Eliot symbolizes his spiritual intricacies in terms of mythological beings…Thurber can personify his own modest nemeses in figures as concrete”), which De Vries would later don as farce. He sent Thurber a copy of the essay in November of 1943, a gesture equal parts hero worship and audition.
Thurber was flattered—most critics didn’t take him seriously—and he admired De Vries’ style. The friendship grew in April of 1944, when Thurber gave a benefit lecture for Poetry at the Chicago Arts Club. An underconfident speaker, he prepped with De Vries the night before. The talk went so well that Thurber persuaded Harold Ross, famous founder of The New Yorker, to read some of De Vries’ work. An incomparable spotter of talent, but no great writer himself, Ross replied, “I have gone over [De Vries’ pieces] and find, to my astonishment, that they are what can readily be described, in the language of this office, as very promising.” He hired De Vries as poetry editor while allowing him to write other stuff. De Vries also helped in the art department, writing captions for cartoons or reworking a cartoon’s premise, a job he kept until the 1980s.
De Vries’ first novel, But Who Wakes the Bugler?, appeared in 1940 to little acclaim. Two more ho-hummers followed plus a collection of casuals, No But I Saw the Movie (1952). Then, in 1954, he wrote his fourth novel, The Tunnel of Love, about an unlikely friendship between Dick, a magazine editor, and Augie Poole, a would-be cartoonist. Augie’s wife, Isolde, can’t have children, so when the couple decide to adopt a baby, they ask Dick and his wife, Audrey, to be their references. Problem is, Augie is a serial cheater, and when his latest bedmate, Cornelia Bly, turns up pregnant and gives the baby to the same agency that approved the Pooles, Augie unwittingly adopts his own love child. Augmenting this comic plot is what De Vries is perhaps best known for: wit. Responding to his wife’s complaint that her back is “stiff as a board,” Dick says, “It’s supposed to be stiff as a board there. That’s called the lumbar region.” Elsewhere, Audrey chides him for telling their son to take up the shoehorn because “[n]ow the child thinks you can play on one.” Dick replies, “You can—footnotes.” A daydreamer, Dick checks out to “an imaginary lodge” on “a remote promontory of the Maine Coast” that he calls Moot Point (a real punhouse, that one).
Tunnel became a bestseller. Two years later, De Vries adapted it for Broadway, where it ran for 417 performances until 1958, when Hollywood had its turn. The Gene Kelly–directed film, his first in which he did not also appear, starred Doris Day and Richard Widmark. The plot was punched up in places (tranquilizers, financial chicanery, mistaken identity) and reversed in others (Dick, not Augie, becomes the philanderer), and at least one critic thought Widmark miscast, saying his performance “drops like a lead bassinet.” Yet it is recognizable as the story that made De Vries a mid-century celebrity, along with Salinger, Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac. Those fellows took on the big questions of life, while De Vries kept his plots close to home—marriage, adultery, social climbing, the battle of the sexes. More than plots, humorists are known for comic personas—think of David Sedaris’ “Weird Little Gay Guy,” in the words of one critic. The fiction writer, again, has it harder, coating that persona with a glaze of invention and shipping it to a made-up world. In 1927, when James Thurber published his story “An American Romance,” a story whose opening words are “The little man in an overcoat that fitted him badly at the shoulders had had a distressing scene with his wife,” he created “Little Man” humor, which New Yorker editor David Remnick describes as “tales of ineffectual men victimized by the world, by women, by nagging suspicions of their own absurdity.” De Vries added a twist to the Little Man shtick, creating male characters who are losers but fancy themselves urbane. The typical De Vries protagonist is smug, a bit of a rake, and not troubled by ethical lapses. We usually find him rebelling against, escaping from, and ultimately accepting society and convention. The books can be dark, but not in the Slaughterhouse-Five sense. They can be surreal, but not in the Gravity’s Rainbow sense. Sex is central to some of his plots—Augie’s love child in Tunnel, Eddie’s smut films in Prick, Maggie Doubloon’s pregnancy at the hands (so to speak) of her student Anthony Thrasher in Slouching Towards Kalamazoo—and figures into many of his best bon mots. A decade before the sexual revolution, he had Cornelia Bly happily hooking up with Augie Poole, which shows his progressivism. And when he wrote about the act itself, it was without an ounce of tawdriness.
Lying down, [Rena] offered up two small breasts as white as the snow. Bent to those, I heard her moan my name on the pillow. Beneath my journeying hand her slim body arched in a convulsion about which there could be no mistake.
“I won’t ask whether I’m a virgin any longer after that.”
De Vries spent most of his adult life in Westport, Connecticut, where he had moved in 1948 with his wife, the poet Katinka Loeser. Then, as now, Westport was an accomplished burg. Robert Penn Warren was a neighbor, and J. D. Salinger lived nearby. John Hersey and Jean Stafford were sometime dinner guests. De Vries’ son Jon recalls awaking one night to “a fantastic voice booming away” in the living room, which turned out to be Dylan Thomas reading parts of King Lear. Westport-like towns became the settings of most of his books, establishing him as “the suburbs’ comic laureate,” a view he encouraged. Humor to him was serious business; it is to most comedians. The trick, he knew, is to make the jokes seem unforced. He often quoted Charlie Chaplin on this subject—“If what you’re doing is funny, don’t be funny doing it”—which reminds me of Elmore Leonard’s admission that “[i]f it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Put the two together, and you have Peter De Vries: character-driven stories, effortless style, and when you reach page 20, you’ve been laughing for—well, you don’t know how long.
De Vries’ fame grew in the 1950s with more comic masterpieces, notably The Mackerel Plaza and The Tents of Wickedness. Then came 1960 and the death of his ten-year-old daughter, Emily, of leukemia. The novel that followed, The Blood of the Lamb, was startling—“a furious tract about the impossibility of religious faith written by a man who wanted desperately to believe,” as one critic wrote. It is the story of Don Wanderhope, a young Dutch Calvinist from Chicago chafing under his parents’ faith. He moves to Connecticut for a chance to sip from a secular cup, but he can’t seem to stay on the right side of fortune. His brother dies of pneumonia, his girlfriend of tuberculosis. Then his father goes mad. A few years later, his wife commits suicide. His beacon through this darkfall is his little girl, Carol, who gets struck down at age 11 by, of all things, leukemia. De Vries teases Wanderhope, and us, by having Carol rally under chemotherapy only to get a staph infection that “ravage[s] her bloodstream” and “[breaks] out on her body surface in septicemic discolorations.” Finally, with her father by her hospital bed, Carol dies.
Blood is called “autobiographical”—a gratuitous caption. Many of De Vries’ books have autobiographical elements. A wine connoisseur, he wrote about wine connoisseurs. A cartoon doctor, he made Augie Poole a cartoonist and Dick the editor of The Townsman, a derivative of The New Yorker. When De Vries’ physician told him in the 1980s that he had a heart condition, his next protagonist had the same scourge. And his characters’ one-liners were sometimes heard originating in De Vries’ own mouth. Woody Allen, who has long been thought of as Hollywood’s confessional poet, said in a 1987 Rolling Stone interview: “[T]he stuff that people insist is autobiographical is almost invariably not, and it’s so exaggerated that it’s virtually meaningless.” This is how I imagine De Vries would answer questions of source material in his books. A writer’s life, he might say, is the ingredients, not the recipe.
Blood is also thought of as De Vries’ “religious” novel, though he had written about faith and despair before. Indeed, according to the critic Jeff Evans, religion “appears as subject matter, object of satire, or repository of former values in virtually all the novels,” even the early ones. In just his third book, Angels Can’t Do Better (1944), a character explains his faith by saying,
I believe that the sky is high, that blood is a river of miracles multiplying questions faster than you can answer them, I believe that faith is a kite in a cloud, that it is insolent of you to scatter the dust of your platitudes across the incomprehensible riddle that is the Universe, that death is neither a question mark nor a semi-colon but a period, that bugs are in earnest, and I believe that it is now a quarter to one.
Note the fanciful tone of this passage. The high-flown language. And the quip at the end. Reminds me of Robin Williams’ character in Mrs. Doubtfire: the Man Who Can’t Be Serious (even when his wife leaves him). Now look at the Wanderhope creed.
I believe that man must learn to live without those consolations called religious, which his own intelligence must by now have told him belong to the childhood of the race. Philosophy can really give us nothing permanent to believe either; it is too rich in answers, each canceling out the rest. The quest for Meaning is foredoomed. Human life “means” nothing. But that is not to say that it is not worth living.
Sounds different, right? Less campy, more earnest? According to Calvin De Vries,* “[t]he religious dimension in De Vries’ books is traced out especially in the struggle between belief and unbelief.” Evans echoes this by calling a scene in Blood “a classic illustration of the ambivalence of belief and unbelief.” In the scene, Wanderhope leaves the hospital after Carol’s death, carrying a cake he had brought for her. Passing a church, he notices a statue of Christ. Furious, grieving, he throws the cake at Christ, splattering His face.
Evans dwells on this episode. Expounds on it. Uses terms like “stoic honesty” and “literary foil” and “epistemological.” De Vries would have snickered at this. The nature of his faith was up for grabs, but there is no misconstruing what he thought of academe. To one interviewer, he said, “I have recently read a couple of serious-type articles about what I am actually up to, and I can only conclude that my stuff is really over my head.” To another, after discussing the “learned theses” that graduate students write on his books, he mused, “Of course, I was the last to know.”
It is clear that Emily’s death turned him inward, at least for a while. In his obituary, Paul Theroux recalled “a darkness and a kind of morbidity entering De Vries’ work” around this time. Blood also contains one of De Vries’ rawest speeches, which Wanderhope delivers after Carol’s death.
How I hate this world. I would like to tear it apart with my own two hands if I could. I would like to dismantle the universe star by star, like a treeful of rotten fruit. Nor do I believe in progress. A vermin-eaten saint scratching his filth in the hope of heaven is better off than you damned in clean linen…
To me, though, and I think to De Vries as well, humor is the key to Blood—humor amid tragedy, because the two are conjoined. “[L]ife is a tragedy,” De Vries told an interviewer, “which entails, however, no need to banish gaiety.”
Thus the importance of De Vries’ cake-faced Christ is that it is hilarious, slapstick, and entirely in keeping with Wanderhope’s character. De Vries made him a smartass, and desserting the Savior is exactly what you would expect from someone who, lying abed with his high-school girlfriend, raises her skirt and muses, “Sometimes I think this leg is the most beautiful thing in the world, and sometimes the other. I suppose the truth lies somewhere in between.” Or who, being asked by a later girlfriend if he is an atheist, replies, “Not a very devout one.” She goes on to ask what he would do if he were God. His answer: “Put a stop to all this theology.”
This does not mean that De Vries had nothing serious to say. Remember Evans’ note of a religious undercurrent in “virtually all the novels.” Why, if that subject was so dear to him, did he become a novelist instead of a philosopher or theologian? His sense of humor? People of the cloth can be funny. His joy in wordplay? Academics can have a compelling style—think Stephen Jay Gould (who is also funny).
No, I think it comes down to the distance that fiction imposes between writer and subject. Don Wanderhope may be similar to Peter De Vries, but he can’t be De Vries, nor would De Vries want him to. If De Vries had been comfortable speaking directly to the world, he would have. Think of it this way: you can’t stand right next to a bonfire. Too hot. Better to stand ten to fifteen feet away, where you can enjoy the fire without melting your belt buckle. Those feet are fiction. And even from a distance, don’t look directly at the fire. You’ll see those not-really-there fireflies everywhere you look afterward, which means your vision has been compromised. Better to look just to the side of the fire. That looking-to-the-side is comic fiction.
I think De Vries did have a lot to say on faith and morals, and he chose to say it through, in the words of one critic, “one-liners, situation comedies, satire, farce, and burlesque.” This means either that he didn’t trust his beliefs or that the play’s the thing. I go with the latter. A more dire worldview might have led him to speak to us directly, but I guess he saw that there was time for humor. There was time, so he didn’t rush to prophecy. No need for burning bushes or pillars of salt or bellies of fishes. Or maybe things were bad but De Vries knew the same thing as Jesus of Nazareth: parables work better than preaching.
De Vries left us parables. Lots of them. Critics say sad ones like The Blood of the Lamb are autobiographical, and they may be, but I imagine him more like the husband in his story “The High Ground, or Look, Ma, I’m Explicating.” The husband is asked by his wife to be more talkative at dinner parties, theater outings, and the like, so at the opening of an art gallery, he says about one painting, “What we have here seems to me to be an organic fusion of form and content…one in which linear and compositional values are also happily resolved.” After a few minutes of this blather, his wife hisses to him, “Go back to the way you were.” But the husband can’t, or won’t, stop. He gets more bombastic with each party, alienating his wife’s friends until she turns on him, shouting that he “mask[s] a genuine aggression under a façade of compliance and vice versa—a sort of basic insecurity inside this husk of independence,” which leads him to muse, “Ah, well, it’s an age of criticism, isn’t it?”
Peter De Vries is who he is. He wrote humor, not literature. He recycled his plots. Some of his characters are stereotypes, some are shallow, and some are despicable. He was slow to update his language, meaning The Prick of Noon sounds like The Tunnel of Love. And, yes, some of the jokes aren’t funny. Critics wanted him to change, be more serious, but he refused; he wanted to be known as a raconteur.
Some writers who have this gift renounce it. Mark Twain tried. In an 1865 letter to his brother and sister-in-law, he wrote
I never had but two powerful ambitions in my life. One was to be a pilot, & the other a preacher of the gospel. I accomplished the one & failed in the other, because I could not supply myself with the necessary stock in trade—i.e., religion. I have given it up forever. I never had a “call” in that direction, anyhow, & my aspirations were the very ecstasy of presumption. But I have had a “call” to literature, of a low order—i.e., humorous. It is nothing to be proud of, but it is my strongest suit, & if I were to listen to that maxim of stern duty which says that to do right you must multiply the one or the two or the three talents which the Almighty entrusts to your keeping, I would long ago have ceased to meddle with things for which I was by nature unfitted & turned my attention to seriously scribbling to excite the laughter of God’s creatures.
If Twain was ashamed of comedic skill, De Vries celebrated it. Indeed, it seemed to be his raison d’ecrire. He was buffeted by his daughter’s death, which amped up the faith and morals in his work, but it never stopped making people laugh. So sit back. Enjoy. You can look deeper, and there is plenty to see. Or you can let him be refreshment. Sometimes an exploding cigar is just an exploding cigar.
Anthony Aycock is a former librarian, an occasional humorist, and bewildered by faith himself: his father is a retired Baptist pastor. He has published a book, The Accidental Law Librarian, plus essays in The Gettysburg Review, The Missouri Review, Creative Nonfiction, Information Today, and Library Journal. He is also an assistant editor at www.conventionscene.com. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, daughter, wife’s hermit crabs, daughter’s corn snake, and a group of cats belonging to all of them (and, in the manner of cats, none of them).
* No relation, but Peter would have loved the absurdity of being critiqued by another De Vries, especially one named Calvin. Loved it so much he would probably have used it in a book. How’s that for autobiography?