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The Return of Peter DeVries

In a moment we shall deal with the curious case of Peter De Vries, once deemed the funniest novelist in America, now all but forgotten.

First I must impart a little message to the children out there. You are going to suffer in life. Sooner or later you will become acquainted with frustration, heartbreak, anguish, desperation and grief. They will visit you whether you live in a big house or small, at the beach or in the mountains, up a tree or down a hole. They’ll walk right in, they’ll stretch out their legs by the warmth of your heart, say, “How nice, how nice,” and then they’ll shriek, “Your cat is dead!” or “They are going to saw off your mother’s leg!” I am very sorry to tell you this. I do not mean to upset you. The thing is, you’ll find out anyway, just like you found out about Santa Claus, or did … ? Never mind. Go to bed. But not yet. My point is that we are all squishing around in the same pit of muck. This is what we call the human condition.

My dears, let us look to cartoons for elucidation. Do you remember the roadrunner, that swift but fatuous terrestrial bird who always eludes the hapless coyote? And the hapless coyote, perpetually rewarded for his ingenuity with an anvil on the snout? Now, in real life, providence might still shine upon the bird, but into his carefree existence some tears would fall. Maybe a development corporation would build condos in his habitat. Maybe his sister would contract West Nile virus and drop dead in the sand. See what I mean about suffering? Everyone must do it — but not in equal measure. This is what’s called the absurdity of the human condition.

When you are older and have witnessed something of this absurdity yourselves, you might get bored with animated cartoons and reach for a book instead. May I recommend to you the comic novels of Mr. De Vries? They are the bomb. But permit me this tiny emendation: the word “comic” is a touch misleading, or might be, depending on your view of things like death.

Mr. De Vries wrote a famous novel called The Blood of the Lamb (1961), in which a man called Don Wanderhope loses faith in a benevolent God. It does not help matters that his brother dies of pneumonia, his girlfriend dies of tuberculosis, his father goes crazy, his wife commits suicide and his daughter dies of leukemia. OK, are you laughing yet?

The Blood of the Lamb is certainly the blackest of Mr. De Vries’s twenty-six books. It is my unhappy duty to explain why. But be patient. I want to make an observation first. Great comic novels often arise out of a real-life sadness. Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five is basically about the firebombing of Dresden, in which masses of innocents were cremated while they slept. It’s hilarious. The power of such books lies in their consideration of darkness as well as light, embracing both a howl of existential doom (for we are all doomed in the end) and the laughter that is its only sane response. Somehow you end up laughing much harder, reading these books, than you do reading books where nothing really bad happens.

This is because we relate more profoundly to that which is like life. As Mr. De Vries once told an interviewer, it is “false to life” to write books that are only serious or only funny. “You can’t talk about the serious and the comic separately and still be talking about life,” he said, “any more than you can independently discuss hydrogen and oxygen and still be talking about water.”

Usually the situations in comic novels are not so dire as people being burned alive. In Mr. De Vries’s Slouching Toward Kalamazoo (1983), a boy not much older than yourselves, an eighth-grader, gets his teacher pregnant. Oh, it might sound like fun. But can you imagine the manifold worries of adulthood crashing upon your baffled childish head? Well, this is exactly what happened to Mr. De Vries’s son Derek! (OK, not exactly. Derek did have a hot Latin teacher — one Mrs. Devine — but all he conjugated with her was verbs. And Derek did date a girl with whom he practiced Latin terms between the sheets of a prep school dormitory bed, but there was no conception; only an expulsion.)

For The Blood of the Lamb Mr. De Vries drew on his own strict upbringing. Both Messrs. De Vries and Wanderhope grew up in Chicago, among immigrant Dutch Calvinists who argued about God all day and were forbidden such commonplace diversions as movies, dancing and card-playing (but smoking was allowed, and they puffed away with compensatory relish). “We were the elect,” Mr. De Vries once explained, “and the elect are barred from everything, you know, except heaven.”

The grown-up Wanderhope traces his creator’s geographical path, from Chicago to New York to Westport (though Westport bears names like “Woodsmoke” and “Avalon” in De Vries-land). As for the psychodramatic path: Mr. De Vries would seem to have concocted Wanderhope as a modern-day Job, seeking God but finding only the back of His hand. It falls to me to deliver the bad news. The novel exaggerates the life but slightly. Here is the rough accounting. Mr. De Vries had no brother who died of pneumonia; the victim was his sister. His father did not go mad, exactly; he suffered from depression. No girlfriend died of tuberculosis; this again is his father, who faded away in the TB ward of a Dutch Reformed hospital. Of all the crosses Mr. De Vries heaped upon poor Wanderhope, it was the last whose burden he shared most wretchedly: the illness and death of a young daughter. After a two-year battle with leukemia, Emily De Vries died in September 1960, just shy of her eleventh birthday.

Mr. De Vries set down the fictional version swiftly, with heartbreaking verisimilitude. According to the New Yorker writer Jeffrey Frank, whom we shall meet in good time, “the descriptions of her sickness and dying are as unbearable as anything in modern literature.” There are many passages from The Blood of the Lamb that could be quoted to powerful effect, but let’s try this one:

She went her way in the middle of the afternoon, borne from the dull watchers on a wave that broke and crashed beyond our sight. In that fathomless and timeless silence one does look rather wildly about for a clock, in a last attempt to fix the lost spirit in time.

I had guessed what the hands would say. Three o’clock. The children were putting their schoolbooks away, and getting ready to go home.

Little ones, you will notice the tempered beauty of these sentences. But where, oh where, is the howl of existential doom? Right there on page 237. After leaving the hospital and downing several drinks, Wanderhope stops to retrieve a cake he has left in a church pew. Out on the sidewalk, he removes the cake from its box, balances it on his palm, and lets it fly — smack into the face of a stone Jesus. “Then through scalded eyes I seemed to see the hands free themselves of the nails and move slowly toward the soiled face. Very slowly, very deliberately, with infinite patience, the icing was wiped from the eyes and flung away.”

Oh dear. I have filled your tender heads with absurdity and gloom. Let us now round out the De Vriesian world, for it is a richly appointed place, not unlike Westport in appearance, not unlike Cheever country in social mores, not unlike Nabokov in verbal fluency — but utterly unique in wit. De Vries wrote funny about drinking: “This Chablis is, how shall I say, Kafkaesque.” He wrote funny about sex: “ ‘Sometimes I think this leg is the most beautiful thing in the world, and sometimes the other,’ I said.

‘I suppose the truth lies somewhere in between.’ ” He wrote funny about disillusionment: “One dreams of the goddess Fame and winds up with the bitch publicity.” He even wrote funny about writing: “I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.”

Mr. De Vries wielded similes like a circus knife thrower: “Released from their supports her breasts dropped like hanged men.” Often similes served as preludes to a greater sorcery, springboards for literary high-dives and arabesques. Here’s what he conjures with “a hat like a shot fowl”:

It was tilted down one side of her face at an intendedly jaunty angle, but recalling rather something plunging to earth in the autumn weather, this image to be linked with that of men crouched in duck blinds or taking aim from rowboats in the pitiless weft of things: predators themselves predestined prey in the immemorial Necessity; kin together not only with the poor feathered thing plummeting earthward in the gray dawn, but with all sentient life locked forever in communal doom. That kind of hat.

An interviewer once asked Mr. De Vries where he drew his comic inventiveness from — an unanswerable question that nevertheless prompted a classic answer. “One just sits in the corner and secretes the stuff,” he said. “Don’t ask a cow to analyze milk.”

Mr. De Vries was a sturdily handsome man with a strong ruddy face, twinkling blue-green eyes, and tidily trimmed chestnut brown hair. In photographs he appears not grim but businesslike, reserved, in any case at odds with the explosive humor for which he was known. Photographs sometimes lie. Not with him. “He was distant as a father,” his eldest son, the actor Jon De Vries, told me. “He didn’t have that clap-you-on-the-back, let’s-go-throw-the-ball-around sort of personality.”

Derek De Vries said, “It’s hard to think of him as a father, someone like him. He was complicated. He was passionate about his craft, the most serious literary person I ever met. But you have to understand, he was extremely sad about a lot of things. He had a lot of tragedy in his life and he put on no airs about being cheery.”

The young Peter De Vries worked an assortment of low-paying jobs more or less simultaneously: running a candy vending-machine route, driving a furniture truck, peddling taffy apples, writing poems and stories, acting on the radio, lecturing to women’s clubs and editing a poor but durable little magazine called Poetry. Here Mr. De Vries wrote an essay about the humorist James Thurber which flatteringly compared him to the poet T. S. Eliot. If you’re an abnormally perceptive child, who does not get enough fresh air and sunshine, you can detect in the very subject matter an echo of the comic’s old complaint, “Nobody takes humor seriously.”

Mr. Thurber liked the flattering essay very much; so much, in fact, that he persuaded his boss at the New Yorker to admit Mr. De Vries into that select literary barnyard. (He finally settled in as a cartoon doctor, for some cartoons are very sick.) Meanwhile Mr. De Vries and his young bride, the writer Katinka Loeser, needed some new stall space of their own. In 1948 they moved to Westport. Then consisting of farmers, artists and a burgeoning class of railway commuters — the raw material of Mr. De Vries’s soon-to-be-famous novels — the town had something of a divided soul.

First you had the free spirits, the artists and writers who lived nearby or dropped down from distant parts. “Westport was filthy with artists,” Jon De Vries recalled. Dinner guests at the DeVries house might include Robert Penn Warren, John Hersey, Jean Stafford and Richard Rodgers. Once, when he was a tyke, Jon awoke to a fantastic voice booming away drunkenly in the living room. “It was Dylan Thomas reading King Lear.” (Mr. De Vries had been among the first Americans to publish the great Welsh poet.)

Mr. De Vries formed a markedly close bond with the young J. D. Salinger, who was then renting a house nearby and working on the novel that would be The Catcher in the Rye. “I remember Jerry Salinger coming over and standing on his head,” Jon said. “And chugging double martinis,” Derek added later. “Jerry also lived on Old Road,” Jon continued, “and he’d come over and express doubts about this book he was writing about this kid who said ‘goddam’ and ‘hell’ all the time. And now that little brat has made it into literary history.”

De Vries and Salinger corresponded long after Salinger removed himself from public view, up there to the north. “They had a great deal of correspondence around the time my sister got sick,” Jon said. “Jerry was, in his peculiar way, very supportive and compassionate, offering advice to a man who was facing this terrible situation with his daughter — a man who, his entire life, had a beef with God.” Sometimes these singular pen pals would trade thoughts on the rigors of transmuting life into art. “Salinger wrote my father a letter describing what writers do for a living as opening a vein and bleeding onto the page,” Derek said. “They understood each other very well.”

Those were the artists.

Then you had the conventionally upright citizens of Westport. The two camps did not always see eye to eye, and at least once, Peter De Vries stood at the vortex of a civic dustup. The trouble arose from a local theater production of his best-seller Tunnel of Love (1954), in which a Westport cartoonist cavorts in the pastures of infidelity. The book was a bit risqué for its time, but not that risqué: Both Broadway and Hollywood made versions of it, the latter starring Doris Day and Richard Widmark.

Here in Westport, however, Catholic decency umpires called the play immoral, whereupon one PTA speedily withdrew its backing.

That Mr. De Vries should take his first public stoning in his supposedly broad-minded hometown (after dozens of backwater theaters had staged the play without incident) constituted a marvelous irony, one the author himself was geared to appreciate. But his children could not always duck the crossfire. Derek, an incurable class clown, made himself especially vulnerable. He recalls a Burr Farms teacher remarking, “What can you expect from a kid whose father writes books like that?”

The brickbats stemmed less from sex than from Mr. De Vries’s handling of religion. The author was forever asking, “Does God exist, and if so, why can’t He be a little nicer?” Mackerel Plaza (1958) took particular aim at a liberal clergyman, but reserved shots for fundamentalists and God Himself. Though some consider this novel Mr. De Vries’s best purely comic performance, one can detect the shadow of morbidity that would infuse his sixties novels with such chiaroscuro brilliance.

The path to those novels, of course, led through the dark prism of Emily’s death. “A tremendous sadness fell over the house,” Jon said. “An event like that is going to drive you in one of two directions. Either you find a way to share the pain, or the inability to deal with the pain drives you apart. Our family fell apart in some ways.” Now observe Blood of the Lamb’s Wanderhope laying waste to all that God has wrought: “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.”

Not much comedy in that, eh? The book unnerved both readers and critics even as they acknowledged its excellence. If you have ever bitten into a tuna sandwich expecting peanut butter and jelly, you will know how they felt. Mr. De Vries tipped the balance back to humor thereafter, but several post-Lamb books — Reuben, Reuben, Let Me Count the Ways, The Vale of Laughter, The Cat’s Pajamas & Witch’s Milk and Mrs. Wallop — retain a dark underside, like the belly of a snow-bearing cloud. Death is everywhere, though usually occurring in a stroke of riotous misadventure, like Hank Tattersall dying of exposure after getting his head stuck in a dog door, or Gowan McGland hanging himself from an orthopedic harness, or Mrs. Yutch laughing so hard she chokes on a drumstick. And God is willfully deaf. As Joe Sandwich says in The Vale of Laughter (1967), “Once in a while I drop into a church again to kneel at the altar for a word of prayer, though this is often a single supplicatory gasp as much accusation as anything else, such as “Give us a break, will Ya!”

Let it suffice that God does not.

In his time Mr. De Vries’s critical reputation was the stuff of dreams. All reviewers mentioned his gift for the witty maxim, but the grandeur of his achievement seemed best appreciated by his fellow writers. Anthony Burgess called Mr. De Vries “surely one of the great prose virtuosos of modern America.” Kingsley Amis said he was “the funniest serious writer to be found on either side of the Atlantic.” Harper Lee, naming the great American writers, said, “Peter De Vries, as far as I’m concerned, is the Evelyn Waugh of our time. I can’t pay anybody a greater compliment because Waugh is the living master, the baron of style.”

Are you ready for the damnedest thing? Mr. De Vries died in 1993, at the age of eighty-three, having lived long enough to see himself pretty well erased from public memory. All his books went out of print. This means he could not walk into Klein’s or the Remarkable Bookshop (themselves now gone) and handle a crisp new paperback emblazoned with his once-magic name. “It was just horrible, absolutely horrible, that this man who was lauded as one of the great comic novelists of the twentieth century, should see his books go out of print,” Jon De Vries told me recently over a cup of coffee at a downtown Starbuck’s. “I think it bothered him enormously. How could it not? If anything confirms what one might see as the worthlessness of human endeavor, that’s it in a nutshell.”

After Mr. De Vries published Peckham’s Marbles, in 1986, he stopped writing books. “When you know you’re done, you’re done,” he told his daughter Jan. By then his literary standing had already diminished. I can’t tell you why. But I can tell you this is a fate peculiar to American humorists. Where the great English comic novelists — Amis, Wodehouse, Waugh, Anthony Powell — are much read, much discussed and very much in print today, their American counterparts — De Vries, Robert Benchley,

S. J. Perelman and James Thurber — seem stuck down a wormhole, waiting to be dug out. (Thurber remains the best known, but it’s his cartoons that proved most durable.) Some note correctly that humor does not keep well, that its tones and phrasings respond intimately to the zeitgeist and then go stale. But this does not explain why new generations keep discovering the English while the Americans languish.

As his health declined, Mr. De Vries’s native shyness evolved into reclusiveness. His friend, writer Max Wilk remembers when the town of Westport decided to give him a sort of lifetime achievement award, then puzzled over how to present it. “We can’t give him a big party, because he won’t leave the house,” Mr. Wilk remembers the first selectman saying. “Maybe I should bring it down to him,” he suggested. “I called and said, ‘Peter, I have a delivery for you. So when I come over I don’t want you to stand on the other side of the door and say ‘Who is it?’ ” Mr. Wilk drove to the house on Cross Highway and made a casual bestowal. “I don’t have too big an audience, so I’m not going to do a speech,” he told Mr. De Vries. “But you’re being given this award for your creative work over the years.”

“That’s swell,” Mr. De Vries said.

Katinka Loeser De Vries died in 1991, and this seemed to precipitate Mr. De Vries’s own final descent. “He was very isolated, very desolate,” his son Derek said. “There was a lot of drinking.” Pinpricks of light did shine through the gloom. Derek recalled, for instance, one of the last notes his father jotted down on the clipboard that he kept at his bedside: “I had a good life. I did something different.”

As the old writer slipped away, finally, at Norwalk Hospital, you might imagine the remarkable instrument inside his skull recording the sensory journey, perhaps a journey not unlike this dazzler from Slouching Toward Kalamazoo:

Doze. Dream. I am pursued by raconteurs from whose threats of systematically spun beginnings, middles and ends I flee down a long Utrillo street, within whose narrowing vaginal cleft I vanish at last, swallowed in a half delicious, half nightmarish protoplasmic twitch by which I am again unborn, no more than one of uncountable soundlessly bursting bubbles...

Though Mr. De Vries wrote no books in his last seven years, he never shut off his mind and went to seed. Innate human dignity made him persevere, Derek believes. After his father died, Derek went through his father’s many sportscoats and found a comb and a sharpened pencil tucked neatly in every one. “He was a beautiful guy, but he was in a lot of pain,” Derek said. “What can you say? That seems to be the formula for it.”

Mr. De Vries is buried in Willowbrook Cemetery alongside his wife and two daughters. (Jan died in 1999.) Upon his gravestone is carved this quote, found by Jon, from the English character actor Edmund Gwenn: “Life was hard, but comedy was harder.”

People die, we all die, but the artists of this world hope to leave behind a mark of beauty or strangeness or truth. Usually they don’t succeed. The same ocean of space and time that carries away our bodies also carries away all memory of us. But once in a while, out of the great swirl, pops a forgotten artist (can you see his flailing arms?) whom fate has decided to toss a memory preserver. A year ago, quite out of the blue, the New Yorker published a critical reappraisal of Mr. De Vries’s work. “Few writers have understood literary comedy as well as De Vries,” wrote Jeffrey Frank, “and few comic novelists have had his grasp of tragedy.”

Mr. Frank told me the idea for his piece arose from a conversation with friends after a funeral. “We were talking about the absurdity of life and death,” Mr. Frank said, when the spirit of Peter De Vries made its natural entrance. Then, rereading his books, Mr. Frank discovered that “much of what De Vries wrote has a feeling of permanence; his antennae for absurdity and his verbal intelligence … have outlasted the jokes,” he wrote. The piece elicited fifty letters and many more phone calls and e-mails: all in all, an enormous response.

Emboldened by Mr. Frank’s article, the University of Chicago Press, which had been considering but leaning against publishing De Vries anew, decided to put out The Blood of the Lamb and Slouching Toward Kalamazoo — one heavy and one light De Vries. They were published last summer, and more will follow if these sell. “When my father’s work is resurrected, as it’s beginning to be, it’ll come back with a lot of force,” Jon De Vries predicted. Then he stared down into his coffee. “I’m sorry that at the end of his life he was unable to take this as an article of faith. He just couldn’t.”