HERE WE GO AGAIN, FOLKS, spinning wildly and wickedly through the tunnel of love with Skipper De Vries at the helm. Sauce for the Goose is his 20th guided tour--the 20th novel in a career that has established him as far more than the facile punster and wit he at first seems to be. Though De Vries is a marvelously funny satirist, and though he can be read with joy merely for his exuberant play with the language ("Dazzlers they were both, who lived in a milieu and had met in a purlieu and danced in an ambiance"), he is even more an astute observer of the human comedy who tempers his mordant commentary with affection and understanding.
Sauce for the Goose finds him in rare, which is to say typical, form. Here, as in most of his novels, plot is but a thread upon which to hang a succession of episodes, vignettes, asides and one-liners: "He invited her for a stroll after the class. There was nothing unsavory about it, as he was homosexual, a course from which he was not likely to deviate." Through all the twists and turns in which he squeezes his characters, through all the peregrinations and loop-the-loops, his central subject remains the same: the mad, mad chase of love.
It is De Vries' particular genius to recognize that the chase is eternal: that its classic maneuvers may be altered by fad and fashion yet at heart it's still, as Sam sang, the same old story. Certainly it is for Daisy Dobbin. She is a girl from Terre Haute, now ripening into womanhood amid the snares and pitfalls of New York. A college classmate, Roberta "Bo" Diesel, engages her services for an exercise in journalistic espionage: she is to get herself hired in an office, uncover through personal experience the varieties of sexual harassment therein, and write an expose for Diesel's militantly feminist magazine.
At first she is hired by Pembroke Papers, but to no avail; its new owner is an ardent Moral Majoritarian, and his staff loves Jesus to the exclusion of more worldly amours. Then, in her second job, she seems to have hit pay dirt. Arriving for her interview with the personnel man at Metropole magazine, she senses an atmosphere of ripe carnality:
"Striding down the corridor toward the office to which she was directed by the receptionist, a stringy brunette in overalls eating a Twinkie while reading Gide in the original, she already had a sampling of what she was up against in the way of competition: girls markedly younger than she, casual and assured in an environment where clothes themselves apparently meant nothing. The Twinkie-Gide bit had been no misrepresentation. They swung along, the girls, with their marketable little bottoms snugly encased in dungarees, their breasts galloping in any old thing--shirt, blouse, sweater. One or two chatted in doorways, or tarried in the hall in smiling exchanges with men for the most part in shirt-sleeves, pleasantly detained in the everlasting grind of moving paper from one place to another."
But a funny thing happens to Daisy on her way to expose. She meets Dirk Dolfin, the publisher of Metropole, a handsome Dutchman with an endearing bent for theological pillow talk. He beds her soon enough--or does she bed him?--but what she finds there is not harassment. What she finds is love:
"She was a disgrace to the Cause. Any true patriot to it would have smoked out chauvinism in the other. She had, like the schoolgirl she had all too recently been, and apparently still was, quite simply fallen in love, and that with the enchilada himself. She had not even waited to be torn between love and duty, had gone right ahead and copped out on duty by letting herself be swept off her feet."
But she is not yet free of harassment; it merely comes from unexpected quarters. One is Ellie Sniffen, her best friend, fellow-worker and, it turns out, rival for Dirk Dolfin's affections; in that rivalry she fears that Ellie is using strategies that are "sexual harassment at its worst." Then there is Bo Diesel, who invites Daisy over for dinner, makes a gaudy pass at her, and rejects her articles when the pass is turned aside. As Daisy says: "Well, it vindicates you in one way. It shows how right you are about sexual harassment on the job. You didn't exaggerate. It's everywhere. Everywhere."
The point may be an obvious one, but it's often lost in an age of strident dogma: individuals, not groups, are the real harassers. Men, Daisy discovers in the offices of Metropole, are not necessarily or automatically on the prowl; women are not necessarily or automatically their victims. Life, De Vries reminds us, is considerably more complicated--not to mention trickier--than the militant feminists or the militant anyone-elses would have us believe. And the mating instinct is far stronger than any passing whim of politics or culture.
Which is the lesson that the novel teaches. But along the way De Vries finds ample time to divert us in other ways. He lingers lovingly, for example, over Daisy's girlhood in Terre Haute, creating in the characters of her mother and father the kind of homespun, Middle Western eccentrics that give him such great delight. He knows all the rituals of courtship; here he pays particular attention to the various histrionics--the pleas for sympathy, the tugs at the old maternal instinct--by which men try to seduce women. And one must look long and hard and far--at least as far as Wilfrid Sheed's novel, Office Politics--to find a keener portrait of men and women lubriciously on the job:
"Intimacy is imposed, if not chosen. And once imposed, accepted. One knew of workaday pairs coupling behind closed doors on a couch, the very carpeting. For a week, two. Perhaps a nooner at the Biltmore, a quickie at the Roosevelt. Then nothing more to say to each other. Mysterious. A wind blowing itself away, a sprig of blossom self-wilting. And in an office nickname-crazy, the wits unceasingly at work. Andy Squibb had hired a carnivore named Cliff Poole who, owing to tastes as catholic as Dog Bokum's own, became speedily known, it was inevitable, as Dirty Poole. And women a match for both him and the Dog were called Doggie Bags, or, if choosier consorts for weekends of a more elevated order, Overnight Bags. With everybody rolling in the sack, who will make the beds, who ever? Right wing politicians raise their snouts from the public troughs long enough to call for a return to God. And high time it may well be."
A moral to munch upon, that. Indeed, let us feast happily on all that De Vries offers, all these wise and funny and compassionate contemplations of the human heart as it thumps bravely in the dark night. Or, as he puts it in the novel's closing paragraph: "'I don't for the life of me understand why people keep insisting marriage is doomed,' he was saying. 'All five of mine worked out.'"