For the record, it should be set down that the new Peter De Vries novel is about the social and sexual aspirations and misadventures of Ted Peachum of Pocock, Ill., who is 16 years old when we first meet him and grows up (but not too much) in the course of the next 200 pages. The book's subject is of some interest but not really crucial, because in a De Vries novel the important point is not what he writes about but the way he writes about it.
The special De Vries quality begins to emerge early in the book, in a paragraph where Ted confides to the reader his aspirations for breaking out of a Midwestern, lower middle-class life style into something richer and finer:
"The plan was vague and amorphous at first, but sustained by a scenario filled with scenes of a charged specificity. The company of people who did not ask for ketchup in public restaurants would be cultivated on a broad front. Eating ice cream directly out of the carton, especially with a shoehorn, would be nothing more than a burning memory, as would buttering a slice of bread in toto and then eating it folded over. I would not say 'Keep the change,' simply telegraph as much to the waiter with the simpering nod of the elect. I would know when a wine was supple and when it was parochial, and say so. Sought after by hostesses rather east of our Pocock, Llinois, I would be seen disposed on hassocks dispensing obiter dicta progressively more silken as the years went by. 'But really, Tanya, what is self-disparagement after all but a subtle inversion of conceit?'"
One does not encounter perfection so often that one can afford to let it pass unremarked. This paragraph comes at least close to the mark. The viewpoint is precisely that of a bright, aspiring and rather culturally deprived teen-ager. It plumbs the soul of its subject in a cluster of half a dozen highly specific images that reveal with precision and comic impact where the hero is and where he hopes he is heading. Its technique is more that of poetry than of fiction -- except that it advances the book's plot with a long, lyric leap. It is a succinct outline of a novel that De Vries might have written -- and one that would probably be rather dull and contrived if written by anyone but this fine sytlist and comedian of manners.
Of course, something happens -- several things happen -- to Ted between his point of departure and his point of arrival. Most of what happens is a arrival. Most of what happens is a series of intimate encounters with women -- approximately half a dozen of them, but the number will vary according to whether you assign one point or three to the Peppermint Sisters, who are triplets and do everything together. Except for the style (particularly the one-line zingers) this novel, too, is rather dull and contrived.
Ted's sexual misadventures are as improbable as they are vivid -- one, for example, involves the semi-rape of a semi-willing policewoman in the back seat of her cruiser: "Deploying my right hand slowly downward along her waist, I tried to unzip her trousers, but first had to contend with her cartridge belt, after which in a supplementary maneuver with my left hand I bruised my knuckles against the butt of her revolver." Et cetera. There is a lot of this sort of thing -- sometimes in fantasy and sometimes in what purports (convincingly or not) to be straight narrative. One's taste for the book will depend largely on one's taste for such material, because not much else of enduring interest happens to Ted on his way from adolescence to fatherhood.
But there are the one-liners. Sometimes they are contrived; one scene takes place on Christmas Day and includes a little essay on the holiday planted simply to lead to the line: "Ah, the ghost of Christmas presents." Some have an air of self-parody and are dragged in from left field: "Sur-realism,' I said at length, 'may be the last of the mayonnaise of Romanticism oozing from the disintegrating club sandwich of the Western psyche.'" Some are valid but require long exegesis, as when he announces that "Two's a crowd," and then must spend more than a page discussing intimate relations a deux to support his sometimes valid punch line. It would have spoiled the line to say, "Sometimes two's a crowd," but perhaps a line that fragile might have been discarded.
But a few other lines are perfect. There is his description of a hangover:
"The next morning I awoke looking like a police sketch of myself put together from conflicting sources." And a cosmic-comic dialogue of two sentences with a young woman: "Do you believe in astrology?" "I don't even believe in astronomy." There is the special, shocked double take inspired by the last word in an evocative sentence that sets a morning scene: "From the bathroom came the sound of my grandmother brushing her tooth."
Such gems are as rare as they are well-formed, and they are always tiny -- seldom more than a sentence and almost never more than a paragraph in length. But the seeker of perfection in this imperfect world must take it where he can find it. It exists, fitfully, in this imperfect book.