The Turf Is Familiar—Sex in Suburbia—but the Critical Attention Is New in Peter De Vries' 19th Novel (or Is It His 20th?)

updated 09/29/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/29/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

"Want to see a study that's the worst pigsty?" said Peter De Vries. It really wasn't so bad; just a few papers on the floor. But De Vries had a joke up his sleeve, which he now dealt, pointing to the tiny mess: "You can have your pick of the litter."

A De Vries fan would have expected it. After 19 or 20 novels (the author isn't sure but it's actually 19), De Vries has come to signify an elegant, sophisticated style spangled with jests, puns and wisecracks that range from highly subtle to flat-out funny.

Now, at 70, De Vries is threatening to break out of the comfortable but cult-size literary community he's lived in so long. His latest book, Consenting Adults, or The Duchess Will Be Furious, is a roll in the familiar suburban hay, with its hero grappling with 1) a liberated policewoman, 2) an ample brewery heiress and 3) triplet sisters. The novel is selling briskly, has been packaged with two others as a Book-of-the-Month Club Christmas dividend and, perhaps most significantly, is getting Page One play in book-review sections (U.S. critics have rarely accorded De Vries the importance the English have).

De Vries greets the prospect of increased visibility with amused ambivalence. "My secret ambition is to sell a million copies of every book," he says, "and then also have a small, select cult of aficionados who look down on my mass audience." Prodded by his publisher, he has finally submitted to the ordeal of publicity after years of refusing interviews. He's avoided the promotion tour, De Vries says, because he doesn't want to have to answer such pompous questions as, "What do you think is the function of the artist in our time?" That may not be the reason at all. In the words of Roger Donald, his editor at Little, Brown & Co., "I think he's really quite a shy man."

He is also, like most comic writers, quite a serious man. The other side of his yen to joke ("Every time I write a book I say no more gags, but it's like a backsliding alcoholic taking a drink") is a proclivity to philosophize on life and literature. Tall, gray-haired, slow-moving, De Vries has an air of unshakable dignity despite his loafing suburbanite's costume of untucked shirt and baggy slacks. He lives with his wife, poet Katinka Loeser, and two cats (which sometimes go under the name Johnson & Johnson) in a pleasant, rambling house in Westport, Conn. It's a literate neighborhood. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren and his author wife, Eleanor Clark, live nearby.

The De Vrieses enjoy a stable existence in Westport, where they've lived more than 30 years and raised three children, now adults. (One son, Jon, won fine reviews recently acting Off-Broadway.) De Vries is a part-time commuter, Conrailing to New York twice a week to "help out" in the art department of The New Yorker. "If you can describe what you do accurately you're regarded as a suspicious character there," he says. But he admits to helping select cartoons and "fiddling with captions."

The New Yorker connection goes back a long way too. De Vries started there as a protégé of the great James Thurber. Working in Chicago as an editor of Poetry magazine, the young De Vries invited Thurber out to lecture. To his surprise, Thurber came. They got acquainted and the next thing De Vries knew, he had a job offer in Manhattan. He worked as The New Yorker's poetry editor for a while and wrote numerous humor pieces before turning to novels.

From Thurber ("He always reminded me of a praying mantis—an elegant, improbable creature...slender, predatory"), De Vries learned "the art of omission—what to leave out." Learning what to put in, he suspects, may have come from his parents, poor Dutch immigrants who enforced a strict, Calvinist discipline: no singing, dancing or other frivolities. De Vries broke away in his 20s, but the rigid upbringing had a strong hold on him. "I longed to get out and enjoy the world that was forbidden us," he says. "But having gotten there, I probably felt some compulsion to satirize it. So it's a way of flouting the household gods and at the same time appeasing them."

Next time out, De Vries will try something new: a novel written from a woman's viewpoint. "My protagonists are all more or less versions of myself," he admits. "I've cut myself up into segments. So many pieces I don't know how I get around any more."

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