When I started writing I wanted to write book like Peter DeVries. DeVries is a satirical novelist from towards the end of the era when folks actually read mainstream fiction. He was active from the mid-40s through the mid-80s and wrote exquisite satires of suburban middle America. Now, I need to qualify that statement for the contemporary world.
You see kiddies, satire is something more than Jon Stewart making a mean joke about the latest target of social media shaming. That, in fact, is barely satire at all. Satire of any quality involves depth of vision, subtlety, and an appreciation of both the positive and negative of something. Otherwise it's just flippant snarkery.
For example, suppose I wanted to make fun of some strident aspects of Christianity as portrayed in The Scarlet Letter. Contemporary "humorists" would portray a caricatured Bible-thumping televangelist who's a secret pedophile. Wouldn't it be more interesting (and funnier) if I parodied the The Scarlet Letter by having the "A" become a line of successful t-shirts? What if I wanted to parody Yeats' Second Coming as a symbol of the coming apocalypse? Contemporary "humorists" wouldn't touch this because a) they think Yeats' Second Coming is a rap album and b) you probably couldn't do it in 140 characters. Wouldn't it be interesting to hint at the possibility that the rough beast is a precocious middle-class adolescent? You see how those parodies have layers? They seem to cut one way, but upon further review they really cut both. It's a little more complicated than slapping a Flying Spaghetti Monster magnet to your car.
That was some rant, eh? Can't you just picture my eyes rolling around and my arms flailing about and the froth at the corners of my mouth? The topic hits some hot buttons, to say the least. I love that DeVries understands satire and subtlety, and that I hate that most famous names don't, but think they do. I also love that DeVries has little interest in the fringes of society. He doesn't have the shallow arrogance that causes writers to look down from on detached high and use the disaffected in every form like a bludgeon to assault the supposed emptiness of normalcy. The characters of his books aren't sociopathic purveyors of hostility and sorrow. If you are a broadly well-socialized individual of middle-class stock, he's looking at you. You may be surprised to find there is dramatic conflict in your life, when pop culture has made it clear to you that it's hollow and pointless and you'll die unfulfilled.
DeVries reward for his grace and insight? He was fairly popular in his day, including successful stage adaptations, but slipped out of print in the 90s and his work is just now trickling back on to Amazon. Sic transit even a little bit of gloria.
I have to find my way out of this rant, don't I? OK, let's talk about Slouching Towards Kalamazoo specifically. The story is of one Tony Thrasher, son of a Pastor, who at the age of fifteen impregnates his high school literature teacher. There begins a tale that takes us through essential questions of responsibility, not the least of which is the difference between taking responsibility and feeling responsible. What follows includes the teacher compelling the teenager to somehow acquire a drug from the local pharmacy, without implicating her, that will induce miscarriage; the various attempts fail. The Pastor's wife finds herself attracted to a local dermatologist, an outspoken atheist, which results in a public debate that turns Pastor into atheist and Dermatologist into evangelist. The teenager's parents invite the teacher to stay with them after she is kicked out of her rooms when she begins "showing", ignorant that their son is the father. An off hand comment from the teenager sets the Scarlet "A" t-shirt plot into motion and sends the teacher off to live with her grandfather in Kalamazoo. The teenager follows (in a slouch), gaining summer employment from the teacher's grandfather -- a real character who spends his days recounting his romantic adventures -- where, though dedicated to helping with "his child", he falls for another girl.
And so on. Each scene is set up for laughs and gets them. The characters are all flawed humans who try to be as strong as needed. None are set above the others. All sides get their hypocrisy exposed and their egos punctured. Always laughed with, never laughed at. And that is how you do satire.
There are a couple of shortcomings. The teenager is failing in school because he spends his time reading the classics of philosophy and poetry rather than learning the dry facts taught in school. I know of no such teenagers, short of the ones in Wes Anderson films. And the ending is a bit of a let down. But the wit and the word play and the elegant prose never lose steam.
Should you read Slouching Towards Kalamazoo? Yes, but you won't. It won't hold your attention. There is no violence to counter, no oppression to overcome, no victorious righteousness. It's just a laugh at the oddness of life, a thing that is easier to dismiss than to appreciate. Your loss.