Peter De Vries loved puns. He was an American humorist and a prolific novelist. There is a quality of stand-up to his characters’ droll musings and dialogue.
Born in Chicago, Peter De Vries worked as an editor for Poetry magazine from 1938 to 1944. At the urging of James Thurber, he moved to New York City to work for The New Yorker. He was on the staff from 1944 to 1987, writing stories and touching up cartoon captions. He was also a wisecracking novelist, and though some of his novels are funnier than others, I am a fan.
His best-selling novel, The Tunnel of Love, published in 1954, is very slight, silly, and goofy. The loose plot crackles with jokes and gags, and I cackled at the absurdity. There are even Latin jokes: the narrator and his friends invent a homonym game called Looney Latin.
It was on one of the evenings soon after my return that we invented, a group of us, in a spate of extemporaneous mirth, something we called Looney Latin, the idea of which was, of course, later pirated and transposed into Gallic as Fractured French. It was basically the same thing. For example, a hic jacet was, we said, a sport coat worn by a person of provincial, or corny, taste; ad nauseam meant a sickening industrial advertisement, and the like.
Not surprisingly, the clever narrator is De Vries’s doppelganger, a magazine art editor who buys cartoons and touches up the captions. One of his most horrible jobs is rejecting the work of Augie Poole, a cartoonist who can’t draw. He wants to buy Augie’s jokes, but does not want his cartoons. It is awkward, because Augie is his neighbor.
Augie is a moody guy, married to an actress, Isolde, who has given up her career. She desperately wants a child but cannot get pregnant, so the Pooles sign up with an adoption agency, the Crib. The narrator has qualms about Augie’s qualifications for fatherhood: he takes to his bed when Crib employee Mrs. Mash comes to their house to get references for the Pooles. He knows that Augie plays the horses, Augie has borrowed hundreds of dollars from him and not repaid it, and Augie cheats on his wife with Cornelia Bly, a cubist artist who gets pregnant.
The narrator tries to clean up Augie’s mess: he buys $1,000 worth of Augie’s jokes and takes the money to Cornelia to pay for the expenses. She and her three brothers are not perturbed by her pregnancy, and they are so intellectual that the conversation gets wackier and wackier.
But then the narrator, inspired by Augie’s bad behavior, goes out with a young woman while his wife is away. The whole thing becomes a comedy of errors, because he does not actually want to sleep with her, but she is insulted that he doesn’t. And then there are more worries…
Perhaps you can see where this is going. But it doesn’t actually go where you think it will.
I don’t want to leave you without an example of DeVries’s brilliant puns. In the following scene, the narrator is chatting to a dull woman at a party and begins to tease her.
“Have you lived in New England all your life since then?”
“All my life except three years when I was abroad.”
“Oh, you were a broad at one time.”
“In my twenties.”
“That’s the best time to be a broad,” I said. “What’s it like, being a broad?”
Are you rolling your eyes? It is funny, though.
Welcome to De Vries fandom!