IT WAS AN ORDINARY autumn night in suburban Chicago when I received the most disturbing book I have ever read. I was seventeen, slouching in my bedroom making a half-hearted attempt at homework, my sweaty cross-country clothes festering on the floor. My father appeared at the doorway and handed me a yellowed paperback that looked at least a few decades old.
“You might like this,” he said.
It was The Blood of the Lamb by Peter De Vries. I had heard De Vries’s name for the first time only a few days earlier. It came up at the family dinner table, and as I learned about him, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of him sooner. He was once a well-known satirist who published twenty-six novels, most of them commercially successful. He spent forty-three years as an editor at The New Yorker, his short stories appearing regularly in its pages. He enjoyed a privileged perch in the cultural landscape, friends with J.D. Salinger and James Thurber.
And he came from our people—the Dutch Calvinists of Chicago. He attended my religious high school and college. He grew up in the same South Side neighborhood as my grandmother, worshipping at the same church, Second Christian Reformed on Seventy-Second Street. According to a family story, he had dated her, or tried to date her. Or they shared a hymnal at a Sunday evening church service. By Dutch Calvinist standards, that’s practically second base.
So how, on the cusp of graduating from Chicago Christian High School—his school—had I never heard of him?
“He was an atheist,” my father said. “Or at least he didn’t get along with the church.”
That caught my interest. In one sense, my sister and I had an ordinary suburban childhood: minivans and strip malls, bean bag chairs and remodeled basements. In another sense, we spent our entire lives in church, even when we weren’t there. We attended Christian Reformed schools, youth group, summer camp—everything. Amish teenagers get their Rumspringa—their season of freedom and debauchery before committing to a life in the church. As teenagers, this was our liberty: we still had to attend twice-weekly church, but on Sunday evenings we could sit in the back pews with our youth-group friends. There we were slightly more able to flirt and whisper through a second sermon and a second set of hymns and prayers. But we were still in church.
One Monday, my high-school gym teacher called me over in PE class.
“You and your friends owe Pastor O an apology,” she said. “The way you were snickering and carrying on was disrespectful. I want you to speak with him.”
I remembered that she had been sitting a few pews ahead of me the previous night. I understood why someone might want to flee this world of electronic organ music and weak coffee and light out for the anonymous canyons of New York.
When I heard about De Vries, a humorist who focused his mockery on our very own subculture, I wanted to know more. I was curious about this supposedly funny Calvinist.
The Blood of the Lamb is unlike everything else De Vries wrote. His most autobiographical work, it offers Don Wanderhope, the son of devout Dutch immigrants freshly landed on the South Side. Don strains against the pieties of his family, drawn to a more cosmopolitan world. He calls himself “a sort of reverse Pilgrim trying to make some progress away from the City of God.” He finds his way east to a secular life in Westport, Connecticut, just as De Vries did.
And the book is autobiographical in this crucial sense: the story ends with the death of Wanderhope’s young daughter. De Vries published the book in 1961, just a year after his own daughter, Emily, died of leukemia at age ten.
In The Blood of the Lamb, De Vries doesn’t merely mock religion, he assaults it with every shred of his intellect and his broken heart. In an unforgettable climactic scene, he directs his rage toward a God who allows children to suffer and die.
“How I hate this world,” he writes. “I would like to tear it apart with my own two hands if I could. I would like to dismantle the universe star by star, like a treeful of rotten fruit.”
These lines felt like a hand on my throat, like a crazed red face pressed to mine demanding an explanation I was not prepared to give. For a week I disappeared into the book, forgetting schoolwork, confusing my friends with questions about atheism. The novel revealed holes in Calvinist theology that I had not encountered in twelve years of religious education. It showed me how little my faith arose from independent thinking, and how much it relied on blind trust in others. Most of all, it forced me to admit my faith had never been tested by true suffering. In Wanderhope’s slamming the door on the faith of his youth, I wondered if I was reading a map of my own future.
Almost nobody spoke of De Vries when I was growing up. If anyone even mentioned him, they dismissed him as “that atheist writer.” Yet his masterpiece novel bears no sign of atheism as I understood it: certainty in God’s nonexistence. Instead, Wanderhope is haunted by a question. It is not just the cerebral “Is there a God?” but a much more frenzied problem, voiced at his brother’s deathbed: “Why doesn’t He pick on somebody his size?” (italics De Vries’s)
It seemed like a good question. And one that my community never asked out loud.
John Calvin, the sixteenth-century French theologian who so influenced our little sect, emphasized the vast sovereignty of God compared to the paltry comprehension of humanity. At its best, Calvinism can foster a deep humility: we aren’t as smart as we like to think. Our fate depends on eternal grace, not on our feeble achievements. Our duty is not to explain the mysteries of existence but to submit to divine wisdom. “Humble thyself in the sight of the Lord,” we sang at summer camp.
At its worst, Calvinism leads to an insufferable self-righteousness. If God knows everything, and believers take the dubious leap of deciding they can know who’s saved, they can neatly divide the world into the elect and the damned. This is the sort of arrogance that chafes De Vries, and the sort he mocks so skillfully.
Like many an immigrant group, our God-fearing forbears arrived on the South Side determined to preserve the purity of the old ways. So, no card-playing. No commerce on the Sabbath. No dating outside the community. These devout families spent Sunday morning in worship and returned to church Sunday evening for a second service, with a pot roast dinner filling much of the time in between.
The wooden shoes gained a foothold among the larger masses of South Side Irish, Polish, Italians, and African Americans by cornering a lucrative profession: garbage hauling. First in the city, and later the suburbs, they collected trash like sins counted by a watchful God. And, like sins in the doctrine of total depravity central to Calvinist theology, they knew the supply of trash was inexhaustible.
The wealthiest son of Dutch Chicago is Wayne Huizenga, who gathered a hundred family-owned garbage routes and turned them into the empire of Waste Management. His success was a diligent, methodical exercise in consolidation, which seems indicative of our people. I think of the classic Dutch-American meal: roast beef and potatoes. It’s substantial and filling. It lacks the garlicky intensity and fiery chilies of our Italian and Latin neighbors. Sensible food for sensible people living under the gaze of an exacting Father.
By the time I came along, seventy years after De Vries, restrictions guarding against worldliness had softened. The ban on moviegoing was gone, although R-rated titles were off-limits to most of us through high school. Secular music was no longer forbidden entirely, although our parents checked lyrics for dirty words, depriving us of the worldly delights of Nirvana and Green Day. As far as dancing, we took our God-given lack of rhythm as a divine hint to try other pursuits.
Given the general suspicion toward the arts, it’s little surprise our tribe has a meager literary heritage. The singular exception is De Vries. His insistent wit drew the praise of Anthony Burgess and Christopher Hitchens. The novelist Kingsley Amis, writing in the New York Times in 1956, called De Vries “the funniest serious writer to be found either side of the Atlantic.”
“Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.”
“Deep down, he’s shallow.”
Nervous ticks were a specialty: “My father twisted the ends of a mustache he forgot he had shaved off.”
He excelled in cataloguing the manners and aggravations of mid-century life. He has been called the most domestic of American writers, and his fiction is a world of backyards and bowling alleys, cocktail parties and cubicles, promotions and affairs. There are no chase scenes or conspiracies at the embassy; this isn’t Graham Greene.
De Vries dwelled in familiar settings because he wanted to dismantle the belief systems that struck him as too smug or self-sufficient. Religion was his enduring target, but he also mocked modern medicine, psychoanalysis, feminism, academia, and the advertising industry.
In The Cat’s Pajamas, published in 1968, he introduces Hank Tattersall, an academic who quits his faculty job to become an ad man when he invents “commercials of the Absurd”: “Are you tired of detergents that don’t get your wash really white? Light up a Kent.”
Tattersall pitches these existential creations to the head of an advertising agency at a dinner party: “Are you sick of the performance of your present car? Does it burn so much oil you’re beginning to think the damn thing is part Diesel? Is there so much sludge in your crankcase you can hear the bearings groan inside it? Pour yourself a drink of Cutty Sark, the man’s Scotch.”
The executive offers him a job, but the ideas fail to attract clients. Having found his critique of consumerism, Tattersall can’t let it go. He embarks on a sort of journey of descent, losing his advertising job, losing his wife, failing as a street-cart fruit peddler, and, through a series of plot turns, ending up stranded in a Chicago blizzard with his head stuck in a doggie door and the rest of him exposed to the deadly elements.
What impresses me is the way Tattersall’s commercials predicted the next fifty years of advertising. De Vries understood that advertisements elicit discontent, not satisfaction. They offer distractions, not solutions. His creations let audiences in on the joke: We don’t have any answer for the emptiness of existence, but we have diversions to dull the pain.
In a telling People Weekly photo, De Vries appears resplendent in tuxedo and black tie, his silver hair combed, his arm draped suavely over a backyard lawnmower. He rose from working-class ethnic roots to achieve New York elegance and suburban affluence, finding all of them ripe for satire.
In The Blood of the Lamb’s courtship stories, I discovered why De Vries wasn’t taught, or even mentioned, at our school. His books contained too many loose morals and R-rated jokes. Where Calvinists are reverent in matters of religion and silent in matters of sex, De Vries was the opposite.
Wanderhope tells one girlfriend, “Sometimes I think this leg is the most beautiful thing in the world, and sometimes the other. I suppose the truth lies somewhere in between.”
Elsewhere he introduces a character: “She was about twenty-five, and naked except for a green skirt and sweater, heavy brown tweed coat, shoes, stockings….”
In Mackerel Plaza, he describes a loss of faith as “not such a tragedy. Like losing a wooden leg in an accident.”
De Vries’s attraction to the East-Coast literary elite clashed with our community’s suspicion of worldliness, a distinct sin in Calvinist theology. “We were the elect,” he once told an interviewer, “and the elect are barred from everything, you know, except heaven.”
If you haven’t heard of De Vries, you’re not alone. He is not often anthologized or taught. His books are out of print except for a few revived by the University of Chicago Press: The Blood of the Lamb and the sub-par Slouching Towards Kalamazoo appeared in 2005; Tunnel of Love, Reuben, Reuben, and the anthology Without a Stitch in Time came out in November of 2014. Since his death in 1993, his name has essentially vanished from the literary landscape.
That vanishing, like losing a wooden leg, is not exactly a tragedy. De Vries targeted the zeitgeist of the post-war era and frequently hit his mark. But that focus now makes many of his books feel dated. Stylistically, he relied on farcical set-ups and signature one-liners. As a youngster he wrote “pepigrams”—homespun pick-me-ups—for two dollars a pop, and the knack for pithy lines stuck with him: “There are times when parenthood seems nothing more than feeding the hand that bites you.” “Philosophy is the attempt to pick at a wet knot with boxing gloves.”
He drew from an impressive bag of comic tricks, but he was at times overeager to use them. His prose carries an impressive rate of gags-per-page, but to modern tastes it can lie heavy on the tongue. That’s another reason much of his work has not aged well.
The Blood of the Lamb is an exception. The novel begins with an argument in the kitchen of a Dutch-speaking family on the South Side, not far from where I lay reading in my bedroom. Don’s older brother, Louie, has recently returned from medical studies at the University of Chicago, that nearby bastion of sophistication and genteel wealth. Don’s uncle, a pastor, is trying to defend the family faith in front of a crowd of relatives and cigar-puffing neighbors.
Louie tosses off complications to belief that I had never considered. He points out inconsistencies in scripture and claims that the virgin birth was inserted into the Gospels by later scribes. He describes the stages of embryonic development that reflect the “fish” and “monkey” periods of human evolution. Family onlookers gasp, a “Greek chorus of Dutch lamentations.” The chapter ends with the uncle penning a sermon that draws on scripture to conclude that the world is precisely six thousand years old. He then reaches for a paperweight to secure his draft, selecting a fossil from the Paleozoic era, five hundred million years old.
The joke was on him. And me, it felt. Our science teachers generally taught us evolution, yet I read with a sense that something important had been withheld from me. What it was I couldn’t say. I tried to explain this to my friend Matt, bringing it up at least twice at school that week.
“You’re really into this atheism thing,” he laughed.
As in: It’s a phase. It’ll pass.
I hadn’t even gotten to the story’s real razors, though. As soon as we meet Don’s brother, he dies of pneumonia at the hands of a careless doctor. Another parallel to De Vries, who lost a sister in childhood. Don’s father shows signs of a mental breakdown, again, like De Vries’s.
After his brother’s death, Don falls in love with a sickly girl at a sanatorium. Her life fades away, and Don asks her doctor if he believes in a God. He notices the doctor’s annoyance at the question:
He resented such questions as people do who have thought a great deal about them. The superficial and the slipshod have ready answers, but those looking this complex life straight in the eye…dread, or resent, the call to couch any part of it in a bland generalization.
That’s not something De Vries would have learned in my Bible classes. Growing up, I had been taught to have succinct answers to life’s big questions ready at hand—with Bible verses to back them up—in case an unbeliever should ask.
After Wanderhope’s lover dies, he marries another sweetheart and they move to Connecticut for his job in advertising. Their daughter, Carol, is born, and then his wife takes her own life. The breezy pace through these events only heightens the drawn-out agony of the death to come.
Don and his daughter settle into domestic routines. She sings in a choir, he takes up bowling for its pleasant mindlessness, they read together in the evening with hot cocoa. Then Carol grows ill.
Jeffrey Frank, writing in The New Yorker in 2004 about De Vries’s legacy, calls the following hospital scenes “as unbearable as anything in modern literature.” I can’t say that he’s exaggerating. Don and Carol make a series of visits to a New York hospital, each time receiving assurances from her oncologist, Dr. Scoville, about his progress researching cures. De Vries charts the development of her leukemia in excruciating detail, tracking the cycles of remission and broken hopes, with each medication more desperate than the last.
Don joins the other parents in trying to preserve a sense of normalcy. They throw birthday parties and speak of returning to school in the fall. He watches a dying infant crawl the hallway “wearing a turban of surgical gauze, whom a passing nurse snatched up and returned to its crib.”
He describes these incidents as if laying out evidence against a heartless God. Here the book’s title becomes clear. It refers not to the blood of Jesus, the lamb of scripture, but to the young girl. Don’s innocent lamb is poisoned by her own blood.
When I read the book at seventeen, it was De Vries’s intensity that rattled me so deeply. The Blood of the Lamb attacked my community’s faith, furiously, from within. That’s something that Hitchens and the so-called New Atheists couldn’t do. We were taught to expect “the world” to mock our faith. But here was one of our own doing the same, and he struck me as funny, sophisticated, and intelligent in doing so. I felt an uncomfortable shiver of recognition, because I knew, even if it went unspoken, that our faith clashed with modern science, that our scriptures carried contradictions, and that religion often fueled as much bigotry as good in the world. I couldn’t defend the reasons for my faith against De Vries.
Returning to the book as an adult, I realize I misremembered two things. First, De Vries reserves as much rage for medical authorities as religious ones. When Dr. Scoville glibly tells him about the “exciting chase” of developing chemotherapy drugs, Wanderhope responds, “Do you believe in God as well as play at him?”
Second, I remembered Wanderhope as a settled unbeliever from his university days onward. Yet it’s clear that he keeps searching for divine guidance until the very end of his daughter’s life, even carrying a crucifix and medal of Saint Christopher. His retort to Dr. Scoville is a bitter joke, yet it’s also the question he can’t stop asking.
By contrast, the stand-in for contented atheism is Stein, the father of another child in the leukemia ward. Where Don’s wit collapses into grief, making him a rare un-ironic De Vries protagonist, Stein plays his foil, scoffing at hope in medical progress:
So death by leukemia is now a local instead of an express. Same run, only a few more stops. But that’s medicine, the art of prolonging disease.
These dark lines make me wonder why my father gave me the book when he did. It’s possible he wanted to give me a sense of my family’s roots on the old South Side, before my grandparents moved to the suburbs with the rest of their churchmates. It may have been a reminder that there is life beyond high school, which I was aching to leave behind. He may have known, before I did, that I was preparing to flee Dutch Chicago, and wanted to show me I wasn’t the first.
Like De Vries, I left for the coast, heading west instead of east. Where he acquired the cosmopolitan sensibilities that young Wanderhope craved, I eventually fell in with the Mennonites, one of the few Protestant groups that might be considered less worldly than Dutch Calvinists.
Two years ago, I became a father. That intensifies lots of things, and one of them is a need to “air the absolutes,” in De Vries’s words. He phrases it as a complaint: “Airing the absolutes is no longer permitted in polite society, save where a Stein and a Wanderhope meet and knock their heads together.” Now that I’m responsible for the education of a child, I wonder about how to share something as gnarly as faith, and why the wrong kind of education feels so oppressive, and how my father, even if he left me guessing at his motivation, managed to get me the books I needed. I returned to The Blood of the Lamb thinking it might say something useful about heritage and culture. I learned, though, that when you read this book as a parent, it’s only really about the death of a child. Everything else is subsumed in imagining that unimaginable event.
For all of Wanderhope’s Job-like arguing with the divine, his climactic action is a wordless gesture. At the false hope of Carol’s last remission, he brings a celebration cake with white icing. Then he learns of the infectious outbreak that finally takes his daughter. Hours later, drunk, he passes the church of Saint Catherine, where he has stopped during the previous months to plead for his daughter’s survival. He sees the cross above the door. He gazes at the crucified figure, considering the impotence of a savior who can suffer but not prevent suffering. He remembers the frosted cake, retrieves it, and hurls it into the face of the dying Christ, an awful twist on the old comic gag. He collapses to the sidewalk in tears.
At first blush, The Blood of the Lamb is about separation. Don abandons his humorless brethren, successful in his reverse pilgrim’s progress to the City of Man. Yet he ends up a grieving parent, just like his own father and mother. The story suggests that, sophisticated or not, pious or not, we are united in the end by what we lose.
That makes me wonder what I’d say to De Vries, given the chance. There is a well-meaning part of me that wants to speak of the comfort I find in faith. Sunday school habits die hard. That part would tell him the central hope of faith is that God does not watch us grieve at a distance, but enters into this broken world and suffers beside us.
But no. You don’t answer tragedy with theology.
In the end, I would simply thank De Vries. From him I gained a sense that unquestioning piety was not the only choice available to a Calvinist kid. I could choose to stay in the fold or go. If I stayed, I had better have a reason for it. Except “reason” isn’t quite the right word. I don’t think De Vries believes in reasons for keeping or dropping faith. At the very end of The Blood of the Lamb he says:
Man is inconsolable, thanks to that eternal “Why?” when there is no Why, that question mark twisted like a fishhook in the human heart.
Demanding answers only gets you a hook twisted in the heart, a bloody, violent image that I can’t shake. For all the churning of his mind, it is not rational answers that De Vries urges readers to pursue. It’s not that you need a reason to justify the way you live. But you need a story.
My own story, I have been discovering, concerns my grandmother and the man she eventually chose—another South-Side Dutchman with a talent for ice-skating and park district softball. My grandparents shared many a hymnal, so to speak, and raised eight children on his modest income as a meat salesman. The lives of this family let me envision a faith marked by humor, not defensiveness, and a sophistication marked by humility, not arrogance.
They suffer, too, of course. And they tell stories—with wit and grief and bourbon and grace—which is the main way I know about the people I came from.
I was too young to ask my grandmother why things went no further with the budding writer, her date in the pews. From family stories I’ve heard her simple explanation: “He didn’t sing.”
In his way, though, he did. For all the rage in the book he began writing just months after his daughter’s death, his despair is not absolute. Absolute despair is silence. Wounded as he was, he stumbled forward in the manner he knew: by writing. He rendered the world as precisely as he could, with violence, beauty, grief, and humor intermingled. The way they always come.
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