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Book Review : Peter De Vries' Latest Trip Into the Heartland

September 25, 1986|HAROLD JAFFE | Jaffe's most recent book of fiction is "Beasts" (Curbstone Press); he is co-editor of Fiction International. and

Peckham's Marbles by Peter De Vries (Putnam's: $17.95)

Early in "Peckham's Marbles," Peter De Vries' 23rd novel in a career that began in 1940, Peckham offers this definition of humor: "We laugh at that which, if there were more of it, would cause us pain." His example is S. J. Perelman's gag: "I have Bright's disease and he has mine." This is funny, Peckham says, but "I have Alzheimer's disease and he has mine," is not in the least funny; it "goes over the line into the painful."

De Vries' urbane wit and charm seem less suited for the novel than for briefer forms, such as stories or sketches. The structure of "Peckham's Marbles" is typically episodic: Characters appear and disappear; the scenes tend to the discursive rather than the dramatic, with less forward than lateral movement; and De Vries gets considerable mileage out of wordplay, genteel pratfalls and amusingly inverted quotations from sources as disparate as Keats and Groucho Marx.

In "Peckham's Marbles," De Vries permits himself still another novel-length look at his perennial subjects: philistinism, sexual mores and the day-to-day foibles of the East Coast "upper crust." Middle-aged Peckham, a novelist and admitted social climber, is recovering from hepatitis in a fancy rest home called Dappled Shade. While chafing at his bungled attempts to seduce either the Juno-esque Nell Delbelly (proprietress of Dappled Shade), or her nubile niece Binny Aspenwall, Peckham is visited by his publisher Dogwinkle with the distressing news that his "relentlessly highbrow" novel, "The Sorry Scheme of Things Entire," has sold but three copies.

Compelled by a morbid curiosity, Peckham sets out for America's heartland to locate his three alleged readers. En route, Peckham flagellates himself with the additional news that while his publisher has glibly confessed his utter failure to market Peckham's novel, Dogwinkle has been obscenely successful with Poppy McCloud's pulpy romance, "Break Slowly, Dawn."

As the reader might expect, coincidences are commonplace: Peckham meets Poppy McCloud at a book-signing in Omaha and successfully ingratiates himself with her; they become lovers, and, in short order, Peckham moves into her Upstate New York homestead.

What follows is a characteristic De Vries' reversal: Peckham becomes Svengali to Poppy's Trilby as he undertakes to teach her to become a "real" writer. Result: Poppy's reconstituted style, characterized as trenchant, minimalist and fashionably morose--her new collection of stories is called "Rotten Persimmons"--attract the attention of the highbrow critics, even as she loses the adulation of the masses.

Typically, there is a moral lurking in a De Vries fiction, and the moral here appears to be: Philistinism is neither better nor worse than a bloodless literary elitism.

In the meantime the author's refined hugger-mugger proceeds apace: the freshly cerebral Poppy ditches Peckham, who, scarcely missing a beat, attaches himself to the conveniently reappeared Nell Delbelly. But, as expected, Peckham overplays his hand when he tries to seduce Binny on her Aunt Nell's sofa and is overseen by Mrs. Spinelli, a scheming, libidinous maid. . . . A half-dozen twists and turns later, the chronically opportunistic Peckham has become a bogus Christian and the permanent paramour of the pious and enormously wealthy Nell Delbelly.

At his best, De Vries can write as others breathe, and there are many dexterously witty passages in "Peckham's Marbles." On the other hand, aside from bits of satirical au courant jargon, "Peckham's Marbles" might as plausibly have been written 30 years ago.

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