Who coined the word “humorist”? It must have been an American, for I can’t think of a better way to trivialize the labor of writers who seek to say serious things with a smile. Nobody dared call Evelyn Waugh a humorist, amusing though he was: Waugh was a comic novelist, and Brits, unlike Americans, take such books seriously. Small wonder that Kingsley Amis, another comic novelist who was at bottom deadly serious, considered Peter De Vries to be “the funniest serious writer to be found either side of the Atlantic.” Being British, Amis had no prejudice against comedy, and being a shrewd critic, he knew how good De Vries was. Small wonder, too, that De Vries, who in the Fifties and Sixties wrote for The New Yorker and thus was fairly well known to American readers, is now almost completely forgotten. All but two of his books are out of print. Fortunately, one of the two is his masterpiece — though it happens, not altogether surprisingly, to be the saddest thing he ever wrote.
The Blood of the Lamb, published in 1961, is the story of Don Wanderhope, a widower whose twelve-year-old daughter, a bright and engaging girl named Carol, dies of leukemia. It is also a furious tract about the impossibility of religious faith written by a man who wanted desperately to believe. It is also, in places, howlingly funny. This is, to put it mildly, a jolting combination of qualities, and so it is far from unexpected, life being what it is, to learn that The Blood of the Lamb is largely autobiographical. Leukemia killed De Vries’s youngest daughter a year before he published this, his sixth novel. The book that he finished writing in the roiling wake of her death reads as though it had been pounded out in a frenzy of grief and rage by a comedian who, for all his horrific suffering, never lost his eye for the grotesqueries and incongruities of human existence.
One must not ask for detachment from a writer who has stared into the abyss, and The Blood of the Lamb is occasionally too raw to be artful. But the angry wit with which De Vries tells Carol’s story — and his own — more often proves tonic, at least for those who can bring themselves to laugh at it.
It is Carol Wanderhope whom most people think of when they remember The Blood of the Lamb. When the editors of Reader’s Digest turned it into a “condensed book,” the version they published, which was called “Carol,” dealt only with her illness and death. Yet the first half of the novel is all about her father, a disillusioned son of Dutch immigrants whose rigid Calvinism has gone to seed. Determined (one might almost say predetermined) to liberate himself from the provincialism of his working-class Chicago boyhood, Don Wanderhope moves to Connecticut, there to live in the bosom of untroubled, unreflective secularism. Yet a Job-like string of calamities stalks him: His brother and girlfriend die young, his father goes mad, his wife commits suicide. The road to modernity, it seems, is paved with heartbreak, and the worst is yet to come.
Having lost his wife, Don devotes himself to raising their daughter, a believably charming child whose cleverness and spunk give him something to live for. But reality pursues him even unto the suburbs, and one day Carol’s doctor tells Don that the light of his life is to be snuffed out. From then on, he inhabits the seesaw world of those whose loved ones are gravely ill — hope one day, terror the next — as Carol undergoes a course of chemotherapy that temporarily wards off the cruel onslaught of her disease.
As Carol grows sicker, Don’s mounting desperation burns away the sly humor with which he poked fun at the Chicago of his youth, a culturally benighted land of “parlor suits,” “kitchen onsombles,” and nice Italian girls who respond to his nascent witticisms with lines like, “That’s a mute question.” Now his wit cuts like a razor: “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.”
In one last spasm of hope, Don’s faith is briefly restored. Then Carol reaches the end of her run, and there is no wit of any kind left in her father, nor any faith to ease his pain. All that is left to him is the memory of her goodness and a longing to help others who suffer as he has suffered:
There may be griefs beyond the reach of solace, but none worthy of the name that does not set free the springs of sympathy. . . . Again the throb of compassion rather than the breath of consolation: the recognition of how long, how long is the mourner’s bench upon which we sit, arms linked in undeluded friendship, all of us, brief links, ourselves, in the eternal pity.
I’m not sure that anyone who has never experienced the death of a family member or close friend is fully capable of appreciating how true to life The Blood of the Lamb is. It is for this reason that I invariably recommend it, along with C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, to those who are suddenly thrust into the black hole of bereavement. Needless to say, Lewis was coming at the problem of pain from a very different angle than De Vries, but both men knew that there is no point in writing about such things save with absolute honesty.
For De Vries, that honesty pointed away from belief. “Blind and meaningless chance seems to me so much more congenial — or at least less horrible,” one of the characters in The Blood of the Lamb says to Don Wanderhope. “Prove to me that there is a God and I will really begin to despair.” Don’s own view is more modulated but scarcely less dark:
We live this life by a kind of conspiracy of grace: the common assumption, or pretense, that human existence is “good” or “matters” or has “meaning,” a glaze of charm or humor by which we conceal from one another and perhaps even ourselves the suspicion that it does not, and our conviction in times of trouble that it is overpriced — something to be endured rather than enjoyed.
Cold comfort indeed — yet sometimes that is all a man can bear to hear. “I’m tired of cheerfulness,” an agnostic friend who was dying of a degenerative disease once told me. “I need to talk to somebody who won’t try to keep my spirits up.” I didn’t quite have the nerve to give him a copy of The Blood of the Lamb, but in retrospect I think he might well have relished it. Like Don Wanderhope, who describes himself as “no longer assailed with doubts, being rather lashed by certainties,” my friend knew that he was close to the end of his rope, and had lost all patience with those who insisted on pretending otherwise.
Believers will shake their heads at what they take to be the naïveté of Don’s village atheism: “‘Thou shalt not kill.’ This was advertised as the law of someone who had also created a universe in which one thing ate another.” De Vries’s view of the existential dilemma, by contrast, was more sophisticated, if far from hopeful:
One trip through a children’s ward and if your faith isn’t shaken, you’re not the type who deserves any faith. . . . We all have to climb out of the pit of desolation, or what is more likely, manage to live in it, planting our flowers among the ashes and squirting them with our gaiety.
That De Vries somehow found it within himself to squirt gaiety upon the ashes of his beloved daughter and his own lost innocence is itself a kind of miracle — if not the kind in whose possibility he was never again able to believe.
– Mr. Teachout, drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the chief culture critic of Commentary, is the author of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, just out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.