The Blood of the Lamb by Peter De Vries (1961) University of Chicago Press (2005) 248 pp
Rudimentary research into the career of Peter De Vries reveals him to be a “greatest author you’ve never heard of” sort. In his heyday he was genuinely famous, not only through his own works but also by virtue of friendships with James Thurber and J.D. Salinger, placing him centrally amongst the Manhattan cognoscenti of the day. The praise of Kingsley Amis, who meaningfully cited him twice, once to call him “the funniest serious writer to be found on either side of the Atlantic” and second to specifically warn against reading him whilst suffering a hangover, augmented his reputation. Harper Lee called him “the Evelyn Waugh of our time,” whilst Anthony Burgess considered him “surely one of the great prose virtuosos of modern America.” Though quips such as “nostalgia ain’t what it used to be” and “deep down, he’s kinda shallow” took a small and uncredited place in the collective cultural vocabulary, just a few years after his 1993 death not a single one of his twenty-six novels was in print. Via the efforts of The University Of Chicago Press, two, then three more, titles were re-issued in the mid-2000s, with the promise of more if they sold well. It is damned criminal that they apparently did not. Amongst them was 1961’s The Blood Of The Lamb, broadly considered his best work as well as his most autobiographical, serious, and poignant. It is quite incomprehensible that a novelist capable of blending tragedy with wit in such a memorable manner could be so easily forgotten. It is difficult to think of any other novelist who has done such a comprehensive job of showing how seriously humor ought to be taken when set against the blackness of tragedy inescapable from human existence. De Vries’ achievement is to fashion frank and uncontrived humor in a story of extreme sadness, a story in which the main character sees his teenage brother succumb to pneumonia, his girlfriend die of tuberculosis, his father go insane, his wife commit suicide, and his ten-year-old daughter slowly give way to leukemia. So, are you laughing yet?
Our narrator and main character is Don Wanderhope, who is growing up in an austere Dutch Reformed household in Chicago by dint of his father’s accidental emigration following a rough crossing which he was not prepared to risk repeating. Evenings are spent discussing faith, the dissenting input being that of Don’s brother, Louie, whose skepticism echoes Don’s own desire for a more cosmopolitan world, making him “a sort of reverse pilgrim trying to make some progress away from the City of God.” His worldview is widened by Louie, whose questions about Christianity would not be beyond any intelligent teenager but are sufficient to cause gasps amongst older members of the family.
I mean what kind of God would create something to be a land biped and then stuff him with relics of a marine past and a crawling past and a quadruped past he never had? How do you explain that? I mean I’m curious.
The debate concludes with an Uncle writing a sermon which draws on scripture to conclude that the human race was created by God exactly six thousand years ago. He then employs a five hundred million year old fossil as a paperweight. Louie’s subsequent death provokes one of the novel’s central themes and would seem to be the earliest confirmation of Wanderhope’s view as more agnostic than atheistic. It would be absurd for an atheist to be angry at God, but the question to which Don demands an answer at Louie’s death-bed is “Why doesn’t He pick on someone his own size?”
Nevertheless, away from such heady territory every character Wanderhope meets offers an opportunity for humor, notably the wealthy widow who is given away by her “Hebridean tweeds, Persian scarf and Dresden teeth.” He meets his first love in a comedic hospital where he receives treatment for a lung complaint. They consummate in a secluded corner of a garage as he tells her “sometimes I think this leg is the most beautiful thing in the world, and sometimes the other. I suppose the truth lies somewhere in-between.” Soon after, she dies of tuberculosis. Wanderhope’s response to grief and loss, as would be purely natural, is to ask the unanswerable, but the presence of rationalist doctors stymies him. In this case, it is Dr Simpson:
He resented my questions as people do who have thought a great deal about them. The superficial and the slipshod have ready answers, but those looking at this complex life straight in the eye acquire a wealth of perception so composed of delicately balanced contradictions that they dread, or resent, the call to couch any part of it in a bland generalization.
There is no time to mourn, however, the perpetual dread in his life enhanced as his father begins to lose his mind, confirming to Don that the grotesque is defined as “a blend of the tragic and the comic,” augmented later by the observation that conventional art is simply unable to satisfactorily investigate their collision.
And whilst it is impossible to think of this novel without its quips and wisecracks (“She was about twenty-five, and naked except for a green skirt and sweater, heavy brown tweed coat, shoes, stockings . . .”), it is the loss of his daughter, Carol, which is likely to remain with the reader the longest. Even if the previous two hundred pages or so were clunkers, this section would secure considerable accolade. It begins with a portrayal of impossible intimacy of a father’s worship of his daughter, seemingly heightened by the manner in which it is rendered through the quotidian and the unexceptional. Take this from a visit to a bowling alley, the type of which is taking place in hundreds of towns and cities around the world at this very second:
Sometimes, resting an elbow on a palm, she would lay her hand against her cheek, waiting. With just enough momentum to roll the last few inches, the ball would sort of jostle the pins aside, rather than knock them down, but over they would go, here one, there two or three. Sometimes players in neighboring alleys would pause to watch too, smiling. In this fashion she often got a spare, several times a strike, and, one evening, a score of a hundred and sixty-two.
The suicide of Don’s wife further cements the bond which can be considered the foundation of what makes the account of the “criminal winter” of the final months of Carol’s life almost unbearable. The self-deception of coping with a dying child is especially evocative, the “adherence to that scared hoax to which we were now one and all committed down to the gates of death: the hoax that Everything Was Fine.” It is also fecund territory for Wanderhope’s loathing of doctors (“do you believe in God as well as play at him?”) and broader theological ruminations reminiscent of his deceased brother’s dissent from orthodoxy. He characterizes his non-belief as the realization that “uppermost in among human joys is the negative one of restoration: not going to the stars, but learning that one may stay where one is.” And more caustically:
Prove to me that there is a God and then I will really begin to despair.
As will hopefully be inferred, this novel achieves such a great deal more than recount a sad story. Its insights are so unreservedly incisive; for example after a dinner party chat about what is the pinnacle of human experience, Don’s daughter’s condition is sufficiently improved to allow her home, leading him to conclude that “the greatest experience open to man is the recovery of the commonplace.” On another journey home from hospital, he introduces a “Note on the doctrine of relativity”:
The happiest man in New York that night was a father heading for home through flashes of lightning and gusts of blinding rain, with a doomed child on the front seat beside him.
Moments like this jolt. Their cadence and deadpan delivery make them funny, but so unfamiliar is the experience of deriving amusement from an ironic observation concerning a dying child that the minimum possible response is admiration of De Vries’ craft. He has created humor from things which should be dry holes, introducing the entirely separate topic of what happens when a humorist is faced with writing about such grave matters. The answer, it seems, when the humorist is deftly skilled and sees no topic about which he cannot be funny, is literature of the most enjoyable and valuable sort. It denotes resilience in that true despair and surrender to grief could not have produced this novel. Its reputation is of being wholly autobiographical, which is not nearly true, but the passing of Carol, by all accounts, is exactly as it occurred. De Vries dedicated The Blood Of The Lamb to his three remaining children, then never made another dedication. It is humor, desperation, despair, beauty and grief and the union between them which marks human existence and which he achieves to superb effect.
Ask a reader for a list of English humor writers and without hesitation you will probably get Wodehouse, Saki, Amis, and Waugh. Each are taught, read, and re-printed. Ask for the equivalent list of Americans and perhaps you might get Joseph Heller. The likes of Robert Benchley, James Thurber, or S.J. Perelman are, like De Vries, mostly forgotten. It is not obvious why this should be, but if The Blood Of The Lamb is in any way representative of what the American literary humorist has produced, then by all means give us considerable increase of it.