To follow up on my post about Peter De Vries from a month ago, I recently finished another novel of his, Slouching Towards Kalamazoo. Set in the 1960s, it stars Anthony Thrasher, an eighth-grader in North Dakota who’s in danger of failing out of school despite casually quoting “Paradise Lost” and Spinoza during class. See, “Paradise Lost” and Spinoza aren’t on the syllabus. His teacher, Maggie Doubloon, wants him to learn the chief products of Venezuela. He has no interest in that.
In addition to the novel’s central event, which is Miss Doubloon becoming pregnant by her precocious pupil, there are funny set pieces including a debate between a preacher and an atheist in which the contestants end up swapping philosophies.
Published in 1983, Kalamazoo owes a debt to Salinger, which you might imagine after a cursory description of Anthony. It revels in absurdity and sexual hijinks in a way that also recalls C. D. Payne’s Youth in Revolt, another branch on the Caulfield family tree. Yet De Vries also reads like his own man, combining erudition with good-natured goofiness and wordplay in a way that is now, and maybe always has been, rare.
Here’s a taste of Anthony’s unlikely but convincing voice:
I was practicing my “trudge,” in preparation for when I would be a homeless waif in the falling snow, when I saw Mrs. Clicko coming toward me on Tuttle Street, looking fifteen or twenty pounds more formidable than when she had stood frowning in the vestibule as I mounted the boardinghouse stairs to my tutorials on that fateful night. She had on a coat of many colors that Joseph himself might have found a trifle busy, and an Easter bonnet that could have made our risen Lord wonder why He had bothered to start the day by getting up at all. It was of straw that had been woven under prune juice, blue-black in color except for a nosegay of wire-and-cloth flowers characteristic of women representing moral integrity in towns with populations between five and twenty thousand. I smiled as I approached her while mentally bringing her down with a low tackle.