Monday, February 27, 2006

Happy Birthday

Today is the birthday of Peter De Vries (1910-1993). If you are unfamiliar with that name -- and judging from the small number of his novels in print, I suspect many of you are -- I feel pity and envy for you. Pity, because you have not experienced one of the funniest, wisest novelists in the language; envy, because your enjoyment of his prolific output lies ahead. His novels are not technically graceful. Neither are they svelte. His funniest book, Reuben, Reuben, is overgrown and gangly, like an awkward teenager. De Vries could never resist a pun, particularly the sort I think of as a shaggy-dog pun, in which the punch line follows a logically precise and highly improbable set-up, like one of Flann O’Brien’s Keats and Chapman stories.

His masterpiece is The Blood of the Lamb, which is unlike any other book he, or anyone else, ever wrote. If you have children, beware. The story, based on the death from leukemia of De Vries’ own daughter, Emily, is agonizing. Comedy remains, as it does in Shakespeare’s tragedies, but the book is a chronicle of one man’s experience of the unthinkable and the strength and limitations of his religious faith. When I’ve met readers who knew the book, they’ve always spoken of it as a story they were unable to forget. They remembered it, as I do, with admiration and pain. Here’s how The Blood of the Lamb closes:

"Again the throb of compassion rather than the breath of consolation: the recognition of how long, how long is the mourner's bench upon which we sit, arms linked in undeluded friendship, all of us, brief links, ourselves, in the eternal pity."

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