Two is Company
Time, October 30, 1994

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by Peter De Vries.
244 pages. Little, Brown. $6.95.

WOMEN'S LIB HAS PRODUCED literary heat, but no warmth—and little humanity. The very person to redress this balance turns out to be no hot-panting tractarian, but rueful Novelist Peter De Vries, who, like Adlai Stevenson and Mark Twain, has suffered from the American assumption that anyone with a sense of humor is not to be taken seriously. De Vries is the most domestic of writers. Except for his masterpiece, The Blood of the Lamb, his literary charades more or less cheerfully present a more or less repetitive series of matrimonial alarums and excursions. The De Vries wife—customarily strong, indulgent, humorless but invaluable—acts as a combined anchor and honeypot for the engaging, mercurial, hopelessly lightweight De Vriesian husband, who mostly can't pun his way out of a wet paper bag but is willing to die trying.

Betty Friedan could hardly ask for more pejorative typecasting. Still, Into Your Tent I'll Creep gives domestic equality a very fair run for its money. The girl is a nice French teacher named Miss Piano, whose forte is snatching the conversational ball from a man and running with it farther and more knowledgeably than he ever could. The boy is Al Banghart, a canny, easygoing Chicago skirt chaser and lowbrow who once flunked her high school French course. Besides being fond of Miss Piano, Al believes in her career. When they marry, he quits his nowhere job in the hat factory to keep house.

Al has to brush up on some shortorder cookery from his early days in a diner. But he is soon humming cheerily about their split-level, swapping recipes, gossip and, yes, much, much more with the girls in the neighborhood. Limning a scene for the inevitable Walter Matthau film that should result from this book, De Vries offers a cuckolded husband bursting into the Banghart kitchen justly bent on vengeance, only to be disarmed and routed by Tomcat Al in a fluffy apron, just putting his potatoes on. "Mmyes?" says Al, delicately smoothing an eyebrow.

Mrs. Banghart is not so easily deceived. Instead of being angry at Al's philandering, however, she is pleased. Nudged by a society not yet ready for Women's Lib, she had been wondering whether he was really masculine enough and fretting about the unfairness of keeping him "enslaved" at home. Being able to call him a rat is pure therapy. Still, she cannot quite shake the notion that it is unnatural for a healthy man to keep house.

Sweetbreads Gramercy. De Vries wisely does not wrestle with the gristly question of whether or not such regressive female reflexes can be reconditioned. He simply launches Al on a career—at his wife's request. This allows a few familiar divertissements. Al's upward mobility, for instance, is traced in increasingly fancy expense-account menus ("O Clams Casino! O Sweetbreads Gramercy!") and escalating malapropisms: "What atmosphere! This place sure has milieu." His inevitable professional decline thereafter produces a characteristic coda: "Going downhill is uphill work all the way, baby cakes."

The usual De Vries Episcopal pastor appears, too, treating divorce as a sacrament in his congregation, perfectly happy celebrating Communion with "an outspoken little Chateauneuf-du-Pape," dearly beloved, until the tragedy of true belief falls like an avalanche upon him. With a little clerical encouragement, Al and Miss Piano separate, not because of equality or infidelity or insolvency or any of those old or new domestic saws. It is simple wear and tear. For the moment, she explains, she cannot face Al's repeated efforts at "a fresh start, leading to a whole new set of shambles." To no one's surprise, they are subsequently reunited, probably for good or ill, in Westport, Conn.

Plot is not Peter De Vries's thing. Neither is message. But he handles marriage with a fine affection, suggesting, among other things, that it is women who customarily treat men with chivalric restraint, rather than the other way around. He also communicates a feeling that the relationship between the sexes is too complicated, cursed, blessed, exasperating and, above all, personal, to be left to the likes of Norman Mailer, Dr. Reuben or Germaine Greer.