Thursday, February 19, 2015
Old Bestsellers: The Blood of the Lamb, by Peter De Vries
The Blood of the Lamb, by Peter De Vries
A review by Rich Horton
As I have said in one form or another here, this blog's main aims are to a) examine books from at least 50 years ago (and preferably rather more) that sold well in their time; and b) to bring unjustly forgotten books to (minimally, alas!) wider attention. Sometimes posts do more of the one, some more of the other. (For example, some "Old Bestsellers" pretty much deserve to be forgotten!) And some, of course, are really about neither category. This week my aim was more at bringing a somewhat unjustly forgotten book (and author) to wider attention ... though the book in question likely sold nicely enough. But I find, searching the Web, that this book, and this author, beginning perhaps a decade ago, are quite often written about, with the same intention: to restore a sadly neglected writer, and his consensus best book, to our attention. So perhaps he's not that neglected after all? But ... I still sense he is, to some extent.
Peter De Vries (1910-1993) was one of the great American comic novelists of the latter half of the 20th Century. While never, I think, precisely a bestseller, he was a popular writer through the '50s and '60s. His most enduring theme was suburban adultery, already expressed in his first "mature" novel, The Tunnel of Love (1954). (He wrote three earlier novels that he largely repudiated.) This theme seemed to lose its force -- perhaps through repetition, perhaps because of societal change, perhaps because De Vries lost energy -- and his novels after the late '60s, though still fitfully funny, were also at times tedious. Four of his novels became movies, perhaps most notably Pete'n'Tillie (1972, based on the 1968 short novel Witch's Milk). De Vries was also a long-time editor at the New Yorker, having previously worked at Poetry. He served in the OSS during the War. All in all, a very impressive career. And for all that, he seems on the road to being forgotten already. Indeed, at the time of his death, all his novels were out of print. (About 10 years ago, the estimable University of Chicago press reprinted a few of his novels (The Blood of the Lamb included), so I think it has become easier to find his work.)
I read a great many of De Vries' novels 15 or 20 years ago, with tremendous enjoyment. My particular favorites are The Tunnel of Love (1954), The Mackerel Plaza (1958), and the book at hand, The Blood of the Lamb (1961). Also well regarded are the diptych The Cat's Pajamas/Witch's Milk (1968), Reuben, Reuben (1964), and another linked pair, Comfort Me With Apples (1956) and The Tents of Wickedness (1959) ... the latter composed of chapters quite brilliantly parodying well-known writers of that time.
De Vries was born to Dutch immigrants in Chicago, and raised in the Dutch Reformed Church (technically, the Christian Reformed Church of America). This is an explicitly Calvinist sect (much more so, it seems to me, than the largest American denomination in the Calvinist lineage, the United Church of Christ (especially the Congregationalist branch of same)). (I visited a Reformed Church of America church a few years ago, and was struck even then by the predominance of Vans and "oe"s among the names listed in the bulletin.) De Vries attended Northwestern, but graduated from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI, a well-respected college sponsored by the CRC. (By rank coincidence, I met two unrelated graduates of Calvin within days of reading that detail of De Vries' biography.)
The Blood of the Lamb is narrated by Don Wanderhope, who shares significant elements of De Vries' biography -- he too was born to Dutch immigrants in Chicago, and raised in the Dutch Reformed Church, and attended Northwestern. His father is first an iceman, then a garbageman. His beloved older brother Louie dies of tuberculosis at about 20, leaving young Don a legacy of skepticism about religion. Don later gets tuberculosis himself, leading to a critical interlude at a church-run sanatorium. (In De Vries' case, it was his sister who died of tuberculosis ... and while his father did not go insane, he did suffer from depression, and did a stint at a church-run sanatorium>)
The general tone of the novel is at first comic, De Vriesian, one might say, but one quickly notices that Wanderhope's life is full of loss. His brother dies. Then, at the sanatorium, he falls in love (his one true love, it seems) with another patient, who then dies. His father goes insane (requiring Don to take over the family garbage business). Before Don's stay in the sanatorium, he had, er, compromised the virtue of Greta, another girl in his church, and was at the point of marrying her, but they broke off after his illness. He meets her again at his father's asylum -- he is accused of having driven her mad by "ruining" her, and agrees to marry her (even though he is blameless as to her condition). Wanderhope sells his garbage route and moves to New York to work in advertising, and they have a girl, Carol, before Greta has another nervous breakdown and commits suicide. The woes continue ... his father and mother both die.
But all this is nothing next to the closing of the novel, which is an extended depiction of the horrors of Carol's long losing battle with leukemia, and it is here that the novel moves into another dimension. It is one of the most moving books I have read ... the depiction of a father's love for his daughter is wholly convincing and utterly wrenching. The portraits of other parents in extremis is likewise wrenching, particularly Wanderhope's new friend Stein, a Jewish man with a daughter just Carol's age (they become fast friends: one of the lines that struck me most on this reading was from Stein, looking at Carol and his Rachel: "'Lifelong friends,' said Stein, who gave, and asked, no quarter.") De Vries does not lose his comic touch here, though of course the comedy is, not black but, rather, agonized, as he describes the physicians and their treatments; and his housekeeper, Mrs. Brodhag; and the sometimes silly but never other than human fellow sufferers. There is also much beauty: Wanderhope trying to experience life with his daughter as fully as possible, knowing it will not last. And finally there are the last spasms of Wanderhope's skepticism about religion, his half-hearted attempts to believe at last (hoping, perhaps, that that way might lie some amelioration for Carol's suffering), and finally her granting him absolution, posthumously ... The arguments presented here are never convincing (and perhaps not intended to be so): they are the old sophomoric plaints (all having their root in Louie's arguments: after all, he was a sophomore when he died): the only real argument is purely emotional, and that is where it connects.
Autobiography as an explanation for a novelist's imagination is always a treacherous crutch. It is obvious that Don Wanderhope's history shares a fair amount with that of De Vries (perhaps extended to the War: it is curiously not mentioned at all (one assumes perhaps his illness gave Wanderhope a deferment), but one notes that De Vries never elaborated on his OSS experience (doubtless because it was classified). Still there are differences: Wanderhope was in advertising, not editing and writing like De Vries, other details like their marriages are radically different ... but in the most crucial area, De Vries did draw on his own life for The Blood of the Lamb. His daughter Emily died in 1960 of leukemia. I didn't know this when I first read the book, and it doesn't matter to the text, but it does add another layer of sadness once you have heard of it. (Kingsley Amis, a great admirer of De Vries' work, describes meeting him once (presumably in 1959 when Amis was at Princeton, writing New Maps of Hell) with a seriously ill little girl in tow.)
The Blood of the Lamb is a stunning, moving novel. The rest of his oeuvre, at least until his late decline, is also remarkable, if never as moving as in this book, it is often remarkably funny, and also shadowed, quite serious in its comedy. One could do much worse than to seek out the University of Chicago reprints of his work.