“We live this life by a kind of conspiracy of grace: the common assumption, or pretense, that human existence is “good” or “matters” or has “meaning,” a glaze of charm or humor by which we conceal from one another and perhaps even ourselves the suspicion that it does not, and our conviction in times of trouble that it is overpriced — something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Nowhere does this function more than in precisely such a slice of hell as a Children’s Pavilion, where the basic truths would seem to mock any state of mind other than rage and despair….carried about in the heart, but privately, to be let out on special occasions,like savage dogs for exercise, occasions in solitude when God is cursed, birds stoned from the trees or the pillow hammered in darkness.”
Peter De Vries. The Blood of the Lamb. reprinted by University of Chicago Press (2005) p.215.
Decades before Irving‘s World According to Garp and its death of child, decades before Picoult‘s heart-breaking dilemmas, and decades before ‘reality fiction,’ or what I call voyeuristic nonfiction, Peter De Vries (1910-1993) produced this slim novel of less than 250 pages in 1961. University of Chicago has reprinted this novel and Slouching Towards Kalamazoo in 2005. Of all his writings, this novel is his most personal. De Vries would write more (voluminously) but none of his subsequent works would bear any dedications.
I suspect that De Vries is a lost name to most readers today. Rather unfortunate. James Thurber begged and cajoled De Vries to join The New Yorker, where De Vries would hold sway and champion writers from 1944 to 1987. In addition to Thurber, De Vries counted John Hersey, J.D. Salinger, Robert Penn Warren amongst his friends and earned the praises of Kingsley Amis, Max Beerbohm, and Eveyln Waugh. He was for a time one of America’s great humorists. Numerous De Vriesian witticisms have since passed into the American lexicon: “Deep down, he’s shallow” is one example.
There is that haggard euphemism that the clowns and the comedians amongst us are the ones who understand grief and sorrow better than the rest of us, using humor as both their fencing mask and foil. This slim novel with the Biblical title and intentional allusion is a father’s comedic and tragic journey as he watches his daughter succumb to leukemia. De Vries wears the mask of one Don Wanderhope and with a name like that you know that De Vries was thinking of the allegorical writers, like Hawthorne, who questioned the fearful symmetry of good and evil in the wilderness.
Emily De Vries did not go gentle into that good night at 10 years old. Reared in the Dutch Reformed faith De Vries rails with impotent fury against God (and his faith’s Calvinist belief in predestination) in turns of phrases that recall King Lear. Every single page of this novel has a comic observation or powerful turn of phrase that would be the envy of any writer. What is there, he asks, but a “conspiracy of grace”?
While the novel is sad, there is humor, a touch of Chopin’s music, and wisdom. De Vries admonishes us to put aside Ego and Fear and love each other while we can because, whether the blood is on the door or not, Death will come, least expected and certainly uninvited.