Peter De Vries’ Slouching Towards Kalamazoo

Both the title and accompanying illustration hint at the comic nature of Peter De Vries’ Slouching Towards Kalamazoo (1983). The slouching is mainly done by Anthony Thrasher, a precocious reader and indifferent student, already held back one grade for his preference for unassigned modernist literature over assigned facts about history and foreign nations, and in danger of repeating yet another year if he cannot convince his quick-witted, proto-feminist teacher Maggie Doubloon, a “modern Hester Prynne,” to give him a passing grade.

De Vries was writing in the early 1980s – allegedly inspired by a story told to him by his son – but Slouching takes place in the early 1960s, with the advent of the birth control pill and the subsequent dawning of the sexual revolution, and poor Anthony Thrasher is thrust into the middle of it. After a frustrating tutoring session, in which Anthony amply displays both his intellectual potential and his disdain for his formal education, he and Maggie go to bed together, “like uncertain dancers learning a new step,” setting in motion the rest of the plot: a small-town teacher, with no husband, growing visibly pregnant, and a 15-year-old boy, the son of the local preacher, responsible. With such a setup, a different author could take this in a dramatic direction, but De Vries is not Hawthorne, and his Anthony Thrasher, responding to a question of his teacher’s bedroom performance, offers not a scarlet A but “an A plus.”

In her review of Slouching Towards Kalamazoo in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani faulted the novel’s narrative as little more than an excuse for its one-liners, and faulted these for unoriginality and a “prejudicial edge.” For my part, I found the jokes clever and the “prejudicial edge” dull enough. Here, for example, is Anthony launching into a characteristic aside on “indomitable Womankind,” after accompanying his mother to deliver Christmas cards in the midst of a blizzard: “I have suffered at its hands seduction, scandalmongering, chicanery, garrulity, silence, false witness, non sequitur, prune whip, and quotation out of context, but respect has endured and affection prospered.” The litany of complaints ranges from Biblical (“false witness”) to contradictory (garrulity and silence) to comical (prune whip, as I only discovered by looking it up, is not a disciplinary instrument but a dish), making for a rather harmless indictment. And that aforementioned mixing of sacred and profane is part of this novel’s larger quarry, for in one of its climactic moments, at a town debate between the local preacher, Anthony’s father, and the town atheist over the existence of god and the validity of religious belief, both men manage to persuade each other of the merit’s of their cause: the atheist becomes a convert, and the preacher loses his faith.

It is true, to give Kakutani credit, that De Vries does not have larger ambitions here than to provoke his reader to thoughtful laughter, but the laughs are frequent and the thoughts interesting, but Slouching cannot fairly be described as “tedious reading” by anyone with a sense of humour.