Sunday, February 28, 2010

`I Did Something Different'

“His sentences soar like laminated boomerangs, luring the reader’s eye until they swoop in and dart across the mind like bright-eyed hummingbirds, for a clean strike every time.”

That’s A.J. Liebling in The Honest Rainmaker (1953) writing of his friend Colonel John R. Stingo, the nom de cheval of racing writer James A. Macdonald. I thought of those swooping words on Saturday when Nige reminded us of the centenary of the birth of the funny, sadly disregarded novelist Peter De Vries. Like Liebling, De Vries was associated for decades with The New Yorker, and also like Liebling he was among the wittiest of American writers.

Thanks to Dave Lull by way of Frank Wilson for alerting me to a De Vries post-mortem by Timothy Dumas. It’s a flip, wordy article that calls for a big red pencil, but there’s much to enjoy, as when Dumas quotes one of the novelist’s sons, Derek De Vries:

“`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.’”

And later, describing the days before De Vries’ death in 1993, when all of his 24 novels were out of print:

“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.’”

Find a copy of the impossibly sad and funny The Blood of the Lamb but also read Slouching Towards Kalamazoo, Comfort Me with Apples, The Mackerel Plaza, Reuben, Reuben and the rest of his books. Twice I've gorged on De Vries' novels -- once in the early seventies while managing a miniature golf course in suburban Cleveland, and again in 1998 in Nova Scotia while staying in a house stocked with thousands of paperbacks including his. I'd start one book as soon as I finished the last one. Here’s De Vries, from a 1964 interview:

“I’m past admiring [in literature] anything I don’t enjoy; divorce of appreciation from enjoyment…is the curse of academic literary analysis.”

And more, from a 1966 interview with an editor assembling an anthology of “black humor”:

“Nobody has been funnier than Faulkner, nor has anyone had a better grasp of the human predicament than Mark Twain. And didn’t Yeats say Hamlet and Lear are gay? Frost said of this basic principle of playfulness (in discussing Edwin Arlington Robinson, of all people), `If it is with outer seriousness, it must be with inner humor. If it is with outer humor, it must be with inner seriousness. Neither one alone without the other under it will do.’ Any comic worth his salt knows this instinctively, even without being able to put it in Charlie Chaplin’s word: `If what you’re doing is funny, don’t be funny doing it.’ Any attempt to isolate the `serious’ from whatever you want to call its opposite is like trying to put asunder what God hath joined together. The reverse is equally foredoomed. There’s a kind of hilarious frustration about it, like working one of those puzzles where you no more than get one pellet into its hole than the other rolls out again.”


Levi Stahl said...

You'll be glad to know that Slouching Towards Kalamazoo and Blood of the Lamb were both reprinted by Chicago four or five years ago. I wish I could say I was the one who thought of it, but not this time: all I did was shout encouragement from the sidelines.

Roger Boylan said...


I agree wholeheartedly about DeVries, one of this country's finest humorists and most humane novelists. The fact that he's been forgotten, or nearly, is a damn shame. Kingsley Amis, one of his few equals in the craft of humorous fiction, called him "the funniest serious writer on either side of the Atlantic." But then if it weren't for the fame of his son Martin, Kingsley would be forgotten, too...

JMW said...

I started reading Blood of the Lamb last week, and I'm 40 pages from the end. It's terrific.