A Mundane Masquerade: Peter de Vries, “The Tents of Wickedness”

This is a little 1949 satire–dedicated “To James and Helen Thurber,” if you want to place it in its social world–about a respectable family man in Decency, Conn., trying to figure out which genre of novel he lives in. He plunges strenuously from Faulkner to Greene all the way to Joyce, and the authorial voice shifts with him. At the same time Charles Swallow, our protagonist, is also trying to figure out whether he’s a newspaperman, an advice columnist, or a psychiatrist. And he’s trying to slither out of a possible sexual entanglement with an even more poetry-damaged girl he knew in high school. In the margins of his life he’s also trying to maintain his somewhat shaky marriage. There are lurid psychosexual scrabblings in a coalshed, a doppelganger narrative in which detective doubles as criminal, Scott Fitzgeraldish breakdowns and fountains of champagne; pastiche Cummings, cartoon Millay, Potemkin Eliot, pasteboard Dickinson.

Most of the book is chilly. I found it hard to get emotionally tangled up with Swallow, even though you could argue that I have had exactly his problem all my life. He’s a puffy guy, handsy with other people’s psyches, self-impressed yet deeply dissatisfied with himself. I did feel pretty distanced from him as he tried on different funhouse glasses (better like this? better like this?) up until his final nervous breakdown and reconciliation with the world.

This reconciliation took the novel out of the realm of formal experiment for me. I mean, the formal experiment is plenty of fun–it’s a sparkling novel, the kind of brilliant conversationalist whose entertainments are as entrancing and fleeting as cigarette smoke. But in the end we get a defense of bourgeois normalcy which is both simple and subtle. It’s hard-won–there’s a reason the book ends with a poem called “Strategic Retreat”–and it plants its flag with a certain irony, a laughing surrender. It’s a fair cop.

Most of the book is shifting, waltzing, evading. But the end is genuinely moving.

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