Quick with quips so droll and witty, so penetrating and precise that you almost don’t feel them piercing your pretensions, Peter De Vries was perhaps America’s best comic novelist not named Mark Twain.
Take it from Andy Borowitz, the contemporary New Yorker humorist who included De Vries in his book, “The 50 Funniest American Writers,” alongside such luminaries as Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, Nora Ephron and the master himself, Twain.
Wait, Peter De Vries?
It’s something of a crime against literature that De Vries, whose novels of the 1950s and early ’60s made wonderful sport of postwar striving, the middle-class move to the suburbs and generational clashes that would render major cultural shifts just a few years hence, has mostly been forgotten. His 1964 masterpiece, “Reuben, Reuben,” is nothing less than a satiric time capsule of the so-called “Mad Men” generation, a look at what your square older siblings were up to when you hit the road like Jack Kerouac and wound up in the Haight.
Literature – in the form of the University of Chicago Press – is making amends for its lapses by re-issuing the best of De Vries’ works, five comic tomes long out of print. They include “Reuben, Reuben,” made into a movie in 1983 starring Tom Conti, and “The Tunnel of Love,” a 1954 comedy of ill manners set in the New York magazine world, which after was adapted for Broadway and turned into a Doris Day-Richard Widmark snarky rom-com.
The five paperback re-issues, which also include De Vries’ only “serious” novel, “The Blood of the Lamb,” have been gussied up with hip line drawings, perhaps to appeal to a younger audience.
Granted, some of De Vries’ writing has not aged well – feminists, take note – but, as with Twain, readers have to approach his work mindful of the era from which it came. Yet, cultural mores aside, De Vries can be appreciated for his wry comic touch, his winking Freudian sexuality even when explicit eroticism could drag a writer into court, and, above all, his seemingly endless supply of aphorisms and malaprops while still keeping the plot brisk and ambulatory.
Remember this oft-quoted epigram: “Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be”?
That’s from De Vries.
Or this nugget from “The Tunnel of Love”: “The value of marriage is not that adults produce children but that children produce adults.”
And how about this lament:
“Out there are also the subdivisions named, by God, after what the contractors had to eradicate to build them – Birch Hills, named for the grove bulldozed away preparatory to laying the foundation …”
It sounds clichéd now, since writers and environmentalists have been making that lament for decades, but it was De Vries who first coined it, in “Reuben, Reuben.” That three-pronged narrative told from the perspective of a curmudgeonly chicken farmer in formerly rural Connecticut, a celebrated Dylan Thomas-like poet/seducer of housewives and the poet’s biographer, Alvin Mopworth.
Seemingly you can open “Reuben, Reuben” to random pages and find comic insight:
▪ “You know what a Gourmet Bazaar is – a grocery store that don’t carry much.”
▪ “I can’t stand name dropping, as I once told Bea Lillie (a famous British stage and movie actress of the ’30s).”
▪ “… there began coming in the door the kind of women who put ‘ish’ behind everything and ‘sort of’ in front of it.”
▪ “‘You can’t resist a pretty ankle, can you, Frank,’ Ella says, and I says, ‘I’ve got my mind on higher things.’”
Calvin Trillin, no comedy slouch himself, once told the Carolina Quarterly that a magazine, working on an anthology, asked him to name five postwar comic novels. His response: “Almost any Peter De Vries novel could be on the list, but particularly the first section of ‘Reuben, Reuben,’ which I think is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.”
The movie version of “Reuben, Reuben,” charming as it is with Conti’s hound-dog appeal, is told only from the perspective of the dissolute poet Gavin McGland. As Trillin points out, the funniest section is told from chicken farmer Frank Spofford’s crusty viewpoint.
De Vries’ novels can be read strictly for humorous set pieces and verbal pratfalls, but it takes some grounding in literature to appreciate all the references. He was adept at literary mimicry, with winking parodies of famous, serious writers – William Faulkner’s baroque pontificating, Theodore Dreiser’s dirty realism, or this Jane Austen homage that opens “Reuben, Reuben”:
“Given a little money, education and social standing, plus of course the necessary leisure, any man with any style at all can make a mess of his love life.”
Though some might dismiss De Vries, who died in 1993, as a minor talent with a gift for gags at the expense of insight – “Down deep, he’s shallow,” another De Vries bon mot – his humor often was aimed directly at the smugness of 1950s conventions, though occasionally he turned his pen on himself.
At a cocktail party in “Reuben, Reuben,” Spofford talks with a “commuter” husband about a roman à clef novel a young writer has published centering on their part of Connecticut: “‘It’s a good external picture of exurbia as such,’ a man said, ‘but there isn’t a single character in it who’s three dimensional.’ ‘Ever meet anybody around here who is?’ I asked.”
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.