Thursday, April 1st, 2010
De Vries, Round Two (The Blog)
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: (continues)
Thursday, March 4th, 2010
A Seriously Funny Man (The Blog)
I just finished reading The Blood of the Lamb, a singular novel by Peter De Vries first published in 1961. It tells the life story of Don Wanderhope, a Chicago native raised in a strict Dutch Christian Reformed family. These biographical details, as well as Don’s most severe trials—culminating in his young daughter contracting leukemia—mirrored De Vries’ own.
De Vries was mostly known as a comic writer—of some two dozen or so novels, all of which were out of print when he died in 1993. (Lamb and Slouching Towards Kalamazoo are the only two now back in circulation, from The University of Chicago Press.) After De Vries’ second novel was published (Lamb was his sixth), Kingsley Amis called him “the funniest serious writer to be found on either side of the Atlantic.”
Even Lamb is remarkably funny. Halfway through, I was already recommending it to a friend, who took it from my hands on the subway and rightly pointed out that it’s not easy to convince someone a book is funny when its copyright page recommends shelving it under “Sick children — Fiction” or “Children — Death — Fiction.” Fair enough. But it really is funny. And when it’s not, it’s powerful on the subjects of family and faith.
[T]here always seemed to be in [De Vries’] better writings a strong tension between his fascination with religious questions and his easy way with a reductive witticism. He was raised in the Dutch Christian Reformed Church, and yet his wisecracking often sounds distinctly Jewish, in the key of Woody Allen. In the end, it was the wisecracking that won out, as De Vries turned out comedy after comedy…
I’ll be on to Kalamazoo next — and I’ve already seen that Strand has copies of several of his out-of-print books.