Whim and Weltschmerz
"IF THERE'S ANYTHING I HATE," the comic novelist Peter De Vries once observed, "it's that word humorist. I feel like countering with the word seriousist."
Over the years, he has countered with a great deal more. At 58, 14 years and nine books out of The Tunnel of Love, De Vries has grown slightly less punnish than he used to be, more dedicated to finding a way through the punishing side of American life. Age and personal tragedy have brought him to view the world as a cruel farce, redeemable, if at all, only through men's small devices for kindliness.
His newest book combines a long short novel with an extended short story. This is an experiment at contrapuntal fiction, for the two tales are linked in a number of ways, including the presence in both of a common character—a slightly rumpled female named Tillie Seltzer. Taken together, they are outwardly frivolous, ultimately marked by an unsettling blend of anguish and resignation.
Downward Mobility. Literary historians will no doubt observe that in Hank Tattersall, the anti-hero of Pajamas, the author has summoned up a kind of upside-down Faust, an itchy, gifted, compulsively discontented man who can do anything, but is damned if he does or he doesn't. Simpler souls may be content with noting that Tattersall has a vested interest in failure. And so does De Vries, for Hank's hegira through a series of professions allows the author to lampoon various American scenes and sideshows, sometimes with Swiftian savagery.
In any case, starting as a happily married, witty college professor, Tattersall explores the U.S. penchant for nerve-racking upward mobility by trying it in reverse. In an excess of whim and Weltschmerz, he runs through a job in advertising ("I stink, therefore I am"), a stint as a successful TV singer, and on down through door-to-door salesman, street peddler, gardener, handyman and tramp. He winds up living in a run-down tenement, selling canned "fresh air" door to door to help take care of a mumbling mongoloid boy and a drunken mongrel basset hound. One night he gets his head caught in a dog door that he humanely installed for his basset— and casually freezes to death.
End Products. By comparison, Tillie's life has hardly any fizz at all. Serious, well-trained in sociology, she meets a gimp-legged skirt-chaser and hopeless vulgarian named Pete Seltzer. His public wit runs to doubletalk and the invention of nonsense "end" products: after-shaving mints, dietetic shampoo, reversible mayonnaise. "He thinks Cameroons are some kind of cookie," she reflects bitterly. But they marry anyhow and live together until their nine-year-old son dies of lingering leukemia.
According to taste, Tillie's matrimonial ordeal in Witch's Milk will seem touching, crazily unconvincing, or hopelessly sentimental. But read back to back with The Cat's Pajamas, it removes all doubt about De Vries' allegiance to domestic commitment, however grotesque. In Hank Tattersall's swinging world, everything is possible, therefore nothing is binding. Like Pete Seltzer, Hank, too, talks about outrageous products. But he does so only in ironic mockery of himself and the commercial world. By contrast, Seltzer's crazy products are mainly dreamed up as a kind of cheerful game to be played with his dying son, and so become part of the sacred conspiracy of the living to make life seem less of a grim joke.
Tillie appears only at the tag end of Pajamas, as a social worker checking on Tattersall. Confronted with the dipsomaniacal dog, a house full of rotting food and stacked dishes, and the mongoloid boy mumbling at the sink, she gets off one of those deadpan lines in which De Vries reveals the madness of the rational world—the thundering irrelevance of good liberal intentions about to founder in a sea of chaos.
"Do you think," she asks Tattersall severely, "this is a good environment for an idiot?"