Book Review: Slouching Towards Kalamazoo, by Peter De Vries

There’s nothing sadder than to have contributed your soul to the world, and as a writer this contribution is more like a communion of flesh, only to find that, at the end of your life, everyone has forgotten about you.

Considered one of the greatest American humourists of his day, on par with the likes of James Thurber and Mark Twain, Peter De Vries was a prolific novelist who wrote over 20 books over the span of his life, most notably Tunnel of Love, The Blood of the Lamb, and Slouching Towards Kalamazoo. There is a fascinating, heartbreaking story about American society’s collective memory loss as it regards De Vries’ work here.

Humourist. The word feels like an anachronism. It conjures the image of an old man in suspenders, sitting on some honeysuckle scented Midwestern porch spinning tales of the County Fair of ’36 when Old Man Smucker’s pig got loose and… but this is all presumption. In other words, we’ve equated “humourist” with “rustic”. It’s wrong. We need humourists, whether they be satirists, parodists, or even the most groan-inducing vaudevillian showmen. We need to laugh – not just with grotesque cruelty, which is our current fixation, but thoughtfully.

Slouching Towards Kalamazoo is classic American humour: an extremely well written (De Vries was an accomplished linguist as well as an editor) portrait of a boy’s disoriented steps toward adulthood and independence in small-town society. It’s also terribly funny in places. His narrative style is never creaky or mannered; he tells the story, adds some window dressing, but always gets back to the point. The point: Anthony Thrasher, an intelligent yet under-achieving Grade 8 student falls for his teacher and winds up getting her pregnant. Compounding this is the fact that, due to his age and immaturity in the realm of the hands-on world, he doesn’t even fully understand the implications of what’s happened, having only the mythology of a boy’s speculation to cope with the problem. Meanwhile, his father, a devout church minister with a passion for reading literary classics aloud at the dinner table, is driving Anthony’s mother toward infidelity…with an equally devout atheist.

Combining a witty parallel retort to The Scarlet Letter – required reading in Anthony’s Grade 8 class – with a prescient view of the theist/atheist debates currently raging around us, De Vries manages to portray vivid characters that, aside from being given satirical names such as Bubbles Breedlove (a friend whom Anthony becomes smitten with later in the book), are touchingly real.

Profundity…? Perhaps. I’m not sure that would be the chief reason for reading Slouching Towards Kalamazoo. It’s delightful, character-driven storytelling with some killer dialogue. What more do you need?

Of all De Vries books, only two are currently in print – out-of-print editions are available via eBay and AbeBooks. Other than Slouching, there is his “dark book” as it’s been referred to, The Blood of the Lamb. I encourage people to give preference to independently-owned bookstores, but in this regard, given the scarcity of De Vries work, I’ll simply say that you owe it to yourself to check him out.

But don’t forget him.


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