Obituary: Peter De Vries
Monday 04 October 1993
THROUGHOUT his career, Peter De Vries was one of the United States' funniest writers, but never remotely the most successful. He was extraordinarily inventive, a superb maker of plots, but he wrote in an era when linguistic virtuosity and verbal comedy were increasingly undervalued.
De Vries was born in Chicago to Dutch immigrant parents. The theology pressed on him at home and at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was puritan and strict. Although De Vries rejected this way of life in early manhood, even 50 subsequent years in suburban Connecticut working for the cosmopolitan New Yorker could not erase its influence. The description of one of his characters - 'Even your anti-Calvinism is the most Calvinistic thing I've ever seen' - could equally be applied to De Vries himself.
De Vries emerged from college to find the Depression full-blown. He worked variously as a vending- machine operator, toffee-apple salesman, and local radio actor, before at last landing a job at Poetry magazine in 1938. Internationally famous as the publisher of Pound and Eliot, the magazine nevertheless survived on local patronage; Chicago's moneyed classes have always been keen supporters of the arts, possibly in the forlorn hope that by such cultural cultivation the city might shed the historical 'hog-butcher' image ascribed to it by Carl Sandburg.
This mix of polish with rough- and-tumble appealed to De Vries, and made him natural fodder for the New Yorker, which he joined at the behest of James Thurber in 1943. Less political and reportorial than it became under William Shawn, the New Yorker was then enjoying its comic heyday, and De Vries found himself in a comedic milieu dominated by titans - Thurber, Robert Benchley, SJ Perelman and Dorothy Parker were all still writing at their best for the magazine.
Interestingly, De Vries's greatest contribution to the New Yorker was unsung, for it was soon discovered that he had an aptitude (sometimes a genius) for writing captions to accompany the magazine's cartoons. So capable was De Vries of linking verbal pith to picture, that many New Yorker cartoons actually began life in reverse as captions created by De Vries, for which pictures were then commissioned.
However considerable this input, it was anonymous work, revealed only indirectly by De Vries himself in his most famous novel, The Tunnel of Love (1954), which features the antics of a magazine caption writer much like himself. Never really excelling in the brief comic sketches then featured in the New Yorker under Harold Ross's editorship, De Vries focused his talent on novel-length fiction instead. In the long run, this served his talents better, but it also kept his profile low.
Settling in Connecticut, De Vries found post-war suburbia a healthy spawning ground for the many novels that followed. This is Cheever country without the grimness; it is difficult to feel morose in the face of the following: 'She was about 25, and naked except for a green skirt and sweater, heavy brown tweed coat, shoes, stockings . . .'
Punning is constant, the verbal play a continual process of surprising the reader: 'I've always been a good judge of horseflesh,' a woman declares in a cheap hamburger joint, 'and this is horseflesh'. She's eating a hamburger. The tomfoolery does not retard the plot development, however, for De Vries's stories are always fast-paced and often topical - Into Your Tent I'll Creep (1971), for example, is a hilarious account of the impact of Women's Liberation on marriage.
Throughout his novels there is an underlying concern with morality that is always additionally tied to religion - or religion's absence - in his characters' lives. Of faith's importance in a faithless age, De Vries the novelist is never certain: we sense a sadness implicit in his realisation that the dogma he rejected early on could never be replaced by an equally unambiguous alternative. A stocky man with a mildly melancholic air, De Vries himself suffered the overwhelming sadness of a daughter's death from leukaemia. It haunted him, and accounts for his one truly dark novel, Blood of the Lamb (1962), which is a thinly veiled account of his daughter's illness and death. Beautifully restrained, it is not a funny book at all, and is so wrenching that it is impossible to read twice.
Totally unpretentious, De Vries seemed genuinely surprised by the attention of admirers. Many of his books should survive for their linguistic inventiveness and their hilarious unravelling of post-war American society. Curiously, perhaps, De Vries's greatest influence has been in Britain, where both Amis pere and fils, Guy Bellamy, Tom Sharpe, Michael Frayn, and the transplanted American Paul Micou continue to practise, to greater or lesser comic extent, in the same word-obsessed vein.
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