Wednesday, June 02, 2010

[Books] Peter De Vries

Peter De Vries: If you were to try to pay me the compliment of a lifetime (and there is no reason you should) you could simply tell me that my writing reminds you of Peter De Vries. Yes, I realize you have never heard of him.

For thirty years -- from the mid 50s through the mid 80s -- De Vries was perhaps the most celebrated satirist alive. He was prolific -- cranking out roughly a book a year; short, funny novels filled with insights from profound to catty, centered on suburban mores and religious confusion. The films Tunnel of Love, Pete 'n' Tillie, and Reuben, Reuben were based on his writings. He wrote for the New Yorker in its heyday, alongside James Thurber and J.D. Salinger among others. Kingsley Amis called him the "funniest serious writer to be found on either side of the Atlantic." Harper Lee compared him to Evelyn Waugh. Dude had all-star chops and everyone knew it, is what I'm driving at.

Then he disappeared. Not unusual for a writer to vanish. What was strange (and borderline criminal, to my mind) was that his books disappeared too. He stopped writing in the mid-80s and was dead by '93. In that time every one of the dozens of books he had written went out of print. I only ever discovered him via a handful of odd comments here and there amongst the more thoughtful magazines I used to read (this would have been right around the time of his death). Luckily, it happened that my favorite local used bookstore, Dawn Treader, regularly found themselves in possession of discards which I gobbled up. About four years ago, two of his books were brought back into print and there was hope that more would come, but it has yet to happen.

De Vries had a master's understanding that the source of all comedy is pain. Especially satire. Raised in a strongly Protestant tradition and a lifelong believer, De Vries nevertheless had serious misgivings about God and his characters reflected that uncertainty. Often they were involved in floundering searches for secular meaning, which seemed to inevitably lead to another common theme: loose sexuality. This theme kicked in heavily in the '70s, when one of his Desperate Housewife-ish characters claimed, "It's all musical beds now."

It's easy to see the stuff of satire: morally confused, quietly desperate, even unknowingly happy characters, bouncing around the suburbs, grasping and whatever transient fulfillment they can find. Some things never change, eh? If there is shortcoming to De Vries works it is that they are often very lightly plotted. Most of the action consists of following characters through their lives and building a picture of them through gimlet-eyed observation and good humor (De Vries is a "laughing with" guy, not "laughing at").

The point of all this is that De Vries deserves better than to be out of print with the exception of a couple of books hanging by a thread. His novels are not long. They remain quite relevant to contemporary life, apart from the odd cultural reference. Is there no publisher that would put together a collection of, say, five of them in one volume? Can nobody take the time to scan them and clean them up for Kindle release? (Even the movies listed above are only available in VHS, for pity's sake.)

Here's what De Vries deserves: In a couple of years, when Matt Weiner is casting around for a follow-up to Mad Men, he uses De Vries works from the seventies to create a whole new period mini-series (this one more comedy oriented). Mix and match characters and events from multiple books. For political context, start with the fall of Nixon and end with the rise of Reagan. For social context, start with a nuclear family in church and end with a sloppy mess of divorcees and step- and single parents at a No Nukes rally. Then just use De Vries to fill in the gaps. (Yo, Matt! If you're interested in development, let's talk.)

For now, I suppose, you'll want to hit Amazon or Alibris. Slouching towards Kalamazoo seems to be everybody's favorite. I can recommend Sauce for the Goose, The Prick of Noon, and Madder Music also.

One final ignominy is that many of his book listings aren't even accompanied by a single paragraph description, as though they were just anonymous paperbacks in an enormous pile of undifferentiated used books in some warehouse. A satirist fate? De Vries tombstone bears the inscription, "Life was hard, but comedy was harder." Amen, brother.