A reviewer once described reading a Peter De Vries novel as akin to watching a Marx Brothers movie. And to those familiar with such comic works as I Hear America Swinging or Rueben, Rueben , the anology is apt. Never one to eschew the obvious, De Vries takes the hint in his latest, Madder Music .
Robert Swirling, overcome by his out-of-control life, is institutionalized for amnesia and for delusions of being Groucho Marx. Why not? Groucho, the great American mouthpiece for everyone else's unuttered insults and antisocial wit, has long been a character of mythic proportions. And Robert Swirling - sane, normal, intelligent and of course repressed - could not have turned into Napoleon, right?
It is De Vries's attention to sensible whimsy, to chaos just below the calm, that makes Madder Music such a pleasure to read. Riddled with puns, arcane references, what De Vries once called "two for a quarter words," Madder Music may not be subtle, but it is civilized and the author even stops to apologize for his excesses ("a Pole actually named Buttinski"). Not every reader will appreciate De Vries's often sphoemoric humor and self-indulgence - but they are such literate indulgences, harmless and refreshing at a time when so many novelists seem to indulge in spleen, not humor.
Swirling's life starts to go awry when he discovers a eulogy written by his wife and mistakenly assumes that it is written about him. He's terminally ill and no one told him! The only thing to do is live out his last days in style, to indulge.Of course, it turns out that the eulogy is not for him. He's not dying, but it's too late to undo the affair he's had with a friend of his wife. If only he'd asked about the eulogy when he found it.
But Swirling didn't ask. In the ensuing misadventures, things happen to Swirling, events so outrageous and funny that it would be giving away the punchlines to describe them.
Swirling, through every fault of his own, may make a mess of things, but De Vries avoids angst. Madder Music at times may flirt with tragedy but the author's comic hand is never far away. And this intelligent blend makes Madder Music touching and a good giggle at the same time. (Little, Brown, $8.95)
-Jane E. Freundel