The most poignant of all De Vries's novels, The Blood of the Lamb is also the most autobiographical. It follows the life of Don Wanderhop from his childhood in an immigrant Calvinist family living in Chicago in the 1950s through the loss of a brother, his faith, his wife, and finally his daughter-a tragedy drawn directly from De Vries's own life. Despite its foundation in misfortune, The Blood of the Lamb offers glimpses of the comic sensibility for which De Vries was famous. Engaging directly with the reader in a manner that buttresses the personal intimacy of the story, De Vries writes with a powerful blend of grief, love, wit, and fury.
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About the Author
Peter De Vries (1910–1993), the man responsible for contributing to the cultural vernacular such witticisms as "Nostalgia ain't what it used to be" and "Deep down, he's shallow," was, according to Kingsley Amis, "the funniest serious writer to be found on either side of the Atlantic." But De Vries's life and work was informed as much by sorrow as by wit, and that dynamic is nowhere better seen than in his classics Slouching Towards Kalamazoo and The Blood of the Lamb. First published in 1982 and 1965, respectively, these novels reemerge with their sharp satire and biting pain undiluted by time.
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The Blood of the Lamb
By Peter De Vries
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2005 Jeffrey Frank
All rights reserved.
My father was not an immigrant in the usual sense of the term, not having emigrated from Holland, so to speak, on purpose. He sailed from Rotterdam intending merely to visit some Dutch relatives and friends who had settled in America, but on the way over suffered such ghastly seasickness that a return voyage was unthinkable. He lay for a week in steerage while the worst storm in recent Atlantic memory flung him about his bed and even to the floor. Faces turned green under scarlet sunburns were his sole unsympathetic company; Italians breathed garlic on him, Germans beer and wine. When at last they disembarked, he fell on his knees and kissed the American soil for no other reason than that it was not open water. To face that again was simply out of the question. He canceled his return passage and sent to the Netherlands for his belongings. Thus was added Ben Wanderhope's bit to that sturdy Old World stock from which this nation has sprung.
For the term "fearless voyager" could, indeed, be applied to my father from an intellectual standpoint. A restless, questing spirit soon had him in seas identifiable, among the Chicago Calvinist Dutch Reformed with whom he sought his portion, as those of Doubt.
"Take the story of the alabaster box of precious ointment," he said one evening to my Uncle Hans, an Iowa clergyman visiting us that summer on what turned out to be a busman's holiday. My uncle ground his teeth; he would greatly have preferred strolling around the block with a cigar in them, amusing the neighborhood children by wiggling his ears, which he could do with amazing virtuosity, one at a time as well as jointly. Especially galling was a believer backslidden from having too diligently searched the Scriptures, as the Scriptures themselves enjoined. "It stands in one Gospel that it happened in the home of a Pharisee in a city called Nain, and that 'a woman who was a sinner' poured it on his feet. In another that it was in Bethany in the home of Simon the leper and that the woman poured it on his head. John says the woman was Mary and that Lazarus was at the table, which it's pretty funny the other writers didn't mention if it's true. One place you read Judas Iscariot objected to the waste, another that all the disciples did. Now if the Bible is infallible how can it contradict itself?"
"The trouble with you, Ben, is ... how shall I say it?" My uncle paused characteristically for the right words, which he found with characteristic precision. "You strain at a gnat and swallow a camel."
"That was neatly put," my brother called from an adjoining bedroom where he was dressing for a date. Now nineteen, Louie had lost his faith during his medical studies at the University of Chicago. "You have a way with words, Uncle Hans." I was twelve at the time, and unaware of irony, but I can see Louie well enough now, grinning into the bureau glass as he knotted his necktie.
My father comes clearly to mind, too, drinking bootleg whiskey while a steady flow of grimaces contorted his face. His lips puffed and receded, his dense white eyebrows moved up and down and even, I think, sideways, separately maneuverable like my uncle's ears. What was odd, even a trifle sinister, about this constant facial play was that its sequences bore no observable connection with what was being said to him, or even, for that matter, by him, issuing rather—to the extent that one can be sure about such things—from what he was secretly thinking. His features behaved as a man's will who is talking to himself, which, indeed, he did in no small degree, even during the course of conversations.
Neighbors had by now begun to drop in to pay respects to the "dominee" in our midst, staying to watch his performance in this theological first aid and to shower concern on the man who required it. My father reveled in others' pity; he basked in being felt sorry for and in being worried about, with an almost voluptuous pleasure. Believers watched the Doubter with awe as they lifted their cups of coffee, taken in discreet preference to the strong drink, which was in any case offered in a manner designed to ensure rejection: "You don't want a shot, do you, Jake? Naw. You, Herman? Naw." Whenever I read those family reminiscences written by people obviously priding themselves on antecedents of great color, I smile secretly at the memory of my father gargling with bourbon in the winter months as a throat protective; using, for chewing tobacco, cigar stumps from which the charred ends had been scissored; and lubricating the door hinges with oil left over from sardine tins—such was his parsimony.
"The thing we must do," said my uncle, "is ignore the promptings of the Devil—"
"I figured this out myself."
"—who tempts the mind, och ja, Ben, as much as the flesh, and we must emulate Christ, who reminds us that things are hidden"—my uncle twisted in his chair to fire this barb into the open bedroom where Louie was dressing—"from the wise and prudent and revealed unto babes and sucklings."
"Neatly put" came again archly from in there.
"How about me?" my father said, resenting any shift in attention from himself. "How about me in doubt and turmoil? That's all well and good, Hans, but what I'm trying to say is, one error in the Bible and the doctrine of infallibility goes to pieces. It's all or nothing."
"Then take it all, Ben," my uncle said. "We must put away the pride of the flesh, of which the reason is a part, and accept salvation as we accept a mystery. For he who finds himself shall lose himself, and he who loses himself shall find himself. Like I said Sunday."
"And the virgin birth. We get that in a chapter where the lineage is traced through Joseph. How can those two things be true?"
"The virgin birth business was slipped in by a later writer, prolly, after the doctrine had been cooked up by the church," said Louie, joining us.
A gasp went around the kitchen table, at which now a small congregation sat. Men stiffened in their black suits, and women shook their heads as heresy darkened into blasphemy. Here under one roof were two candidates for the dread afgescheidenen, a term as dire as "purge" to citizens of a later absolutism. My mother poured coffee with a trembling hand; my nearly blind grandmother, who lived with us at the time, was busily trying to sweep cigar burns in the oilcloth into a crumber; my grandfather went out to the front porch, where he stood scratching himself in a manner said to be depreciating property values. My uncle shook a finger threateningly in Louie's face. "I'll pray for you."
"Do dat," said Louie, whose Chicago street diction was being but slowly refined by influences on the University Midway.
"That damnable school where they teach you such things."
"Pa get his from there? We can read for ourselves, is the thing, and I'll tell you this about the Bible. You don't have to believe it's infallible to get something out of it, in fact it's only after you've dropped all that geklets that you can begin to appreciate it as great literature."
A special murmur of dismay was excited by this, for the heresy that the Bible was great literature was one the clergy were trying particularly to spike. Dr. Berkenbosch, who had just arrived to look in on my grandmother, stood flattened against the kitchen door, his eyes closed but rolling under their lids as well we knew, wishing he had not come. "Next he'll call Thy word poetry," my uncle said. "He's going to call it gracefully written. Forgive him, O Lord, I ask it in advance."
"The Book of Job is the greatest drama ever struck off by the hand of man. Just terrific theater. Greater than Aeschylus, prolly."
"Down on our knees, shall we, everyone, and try yet to pluck this brand from the burning?"
The hearers were too stricken to move from their chairs, in which they stiffened as though charges of electric current were being passed through their frames. Moans ran around the table, heads were shaken.
"He says it's great drama. Sheer theater—God's word. Hemelse Vader."
Whatever the theater in Job, there was no lack of it in our kitchen that night. Above the Greek chorus of Dutch lamentations could be heard my brother exclaiming, "It's your silly theologies that have made religion impossible and mucked up people's lives till you can't call it living any more! Look at Ma! Look at Pa!"
Look at them indeed. Our mother was wiping the table with one hand and her eyes with the other. Our father had his elbows on the table and seemed to be trying to extricate his head from his hands as from a porthole, or vise, into which it had been inadvertently thrust. My uncle put his face up close to Louie's and said, "You're talking to a servant of God!"
"You're talking to someone who hasn't let the brains God gave him rot, and doesn't intend to!"
Such a scene may seem, to households devoid of polemic excitement, to lie outside credulity, but it was a common one in ours. Now when I am myself no longer assailed by doubts, being rather lashed by certainties, I can look back on it with a perspective quite lacking in my view of it then, for my teeth were chattering. We were a chosen people, more so than the Jews, who had "rejected the cornerstone," our concept of Calvinist election reinforced by that of Dutch supremacy. My mother even then sometimes gave the impression that she thought Jesus was a Hollander. Not that our heroes did not include men of other extractions and other faiths. Several years after the Scopes trial, we were still aggressively mourning the defeat of William Jennings Bryan, and it took very little time for the subject of evolution to come into the argument.
"What about a First Cause?" my uncle said. "Where did the world come from if God didn't make it?"
"What about vestigial organs?" my brother countered. "The only reason you can wiggle your ears better than the rest of us is the muscles left over from the olden days haven't atrophied as much as most people's. You've also got a set to swing a tail with, pal, take it from me. Not to speak of over a hundred other remnants from wisdom teeth to hair you've got no use for now but once retained body heat for four-footed beasts."
"Down on our knees, shall we?"
"We've been through that stage."
"Why haven't I got a tail, if I've still got the muscles to wag it?"
"Don't think you once didn't. Which brings us to the embryo, if vestigial organs don't convince you. Do you know what 'ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny' means?"
"I am not impressed by big words," said my uncle, who was always ready enough to bandy "predestination" and "infralapsarianism."
"Means the individual enacts in miniature the entire evolutionary history of the race, beginning with conception." Louie turned to my aunt, who happened to be conveniently pregnant. "How far along is Aunt Wilhelmina here?"
"Will you shut your foul mouth?"
"Seven months? Then the gill clefts her kid had at two—a relic of the fish stage, you see—are closed up. The breathing apparatus of land animals has developed, pal. The notochord has become the vertebrate spine. Your kid has its feet curled in toward each other, sweetheart, like hands, capable of grasping branches. The tail it has had all these months will by birth have withered away, though occasionally a human mammal is born with one. You can talk yourself blue in the face, but you and Bryan and Billy Sunday and anybody else you care to name are walking museums of what you deny, while Aunt Wilhelmina is carrying inside her a synopsis of the story thus far. Your child is about to come down out of the trees."
My uncle turned and, for a moment, seemed to shift his protest to his wife, or at least to evaluate her with new eyes, as one capable of betraying his most cherished principles and possibly even threatening their livelihood in thus carting about in her middle a digest of Natural Selection. Louie hurried on.
"More dramatic throwbacks are harelips harking back to piscine ancestors with that nostril formation, dog-faced boys seen in circus sideshows—"
Here a shriek from my aunt herself brought an abrupt change in the course events had thus far taken. Running from the room, she cried, "Wat scheelt u?" (What ails you?) "Talking about those things in front of a woman who's carrying!" Several women hurried into the parlor behind her, poor choices to calm hysteria since they shared all too keenly the peasant superstitions from which it sprang, and were in a few instances in a delicate condition themselves.
Suddenly the whole house was a boiling uproar. People ran back and forth from kitchen to parlor like victims of a panic with no leader. Hands soothed my heaving aunt, loosening her clothes so she could breathe, or were simply wrung to the accompaniment of rolled eyes and deploring clucks. Doc Berkenbosch seized his bag and flew into the parlor, closing the door after pushing all the men and some of the women back into the passage like a subway attendant. My uncle wheeled on Louie.
"You! I'm surprised at you, a so-called educated person, knowing no better than to talk like that in front of a woman in the family way. Is that what they teach you at the University, how to bring dog-faced boys and so on into the world?"
"But people don't believe those old wives' tales about marked babies any more." The feminine chorus rising beyond the closed door to some extent belied this assumption. "Those are just foolish superstitions we ought to help women be free of. We no longer believe in prenatal influence."
"No longer—!" My uncle stood aghast. "What have you just been telling us but that? Cleft palates, donkey ears, tails—it's all there, you just got through saying, waiting for an unguarded word or evil influence to bring it out. It's all there, science tells us. Aunt Wilhelmina's got the makings of any kind of freak you care to name inside her. Name it and she's got it, you said."
"That's not what I said. I said that everybody is a walking museum of evolution, and it's up to you to explain the fact if Genesis is true and God created man on Saturday as a land animal. I mean what kind of God would create something to be a land biped and then stuff him with relics of a marine past and a crawling past and a quadruped past he never had? How do you explain that? I mean I'm curious."
My uncle wagged an unlighted cigar warningly in Louie's face. "If I have an albino—"
The door burst open and Doc Berkenbosch galloped into view, his coat off and rolling up his shirtsleeves. "Water," he said, "get me some water," and galloped back again.
Someone snatched up a kettle and filled it at the sink while another struck a match to light the gas stove. These were of the more liberal, or enlightened, element who attended movies in face of the church's ban on that form of entertainment. "She's going to have it here. It's been brought on," one said. The kitchen table was cleared; somebody began tearing his shirt into strips for bandages.
"No, no, a glass of water," said the returned Doc Berkenbosch. "To take a sedative with." He was given a tumblerful, with which he trotted back again into the parlor.
Through the door now left open we could see my aunt in a straight chair gulping down the pill, while Doc Berkenbosch's stethoscope rode the white billows of her bosom. The women in attendance, most of them as fat as she, formed a ring of Corybants about an Earth Mother they had husked down to the waist. Handkerchiefs soaked in strong cologne were offered her as restoratives, whiffs of which reached us in the passage where we stood craning our necks. At last Doc put his stethoscope by and announced that she would neither "have it here" nor require further concern provided rubbernecking curiosity and rival ministrations—such as the toilet waters at war with his tranquilizer—did not defeat his own. The women kept up a steady low sound neither cooing nor lamentation, but both. My mother smote her temples softly in the middle distance. A neighbor addicted to opening the Bible at random for guidance in times of stress took ours from the shelf and read aloud into the din, "Moab is my washpot; over Edom will I cast out my shoe," without noticeably bringing order out of chaos. Order was restored only after Doc had reassumed the guise of subway attendant and pushed everybody, men and women, into the kitchen. Here my father's voice was heard calling us back to the fundamentals from which we had so flamboyantly strayed.
Excerpted from The Blood of the Lamb by Peter De Vries. Copyright © 2005 Jeffrey Frank. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book begins as pure DeVries - an hilarious account of the hero's early life and courtship, but then veers off into a harrowing, and deeply, deeply moving tale of the hero's daughter's fight with leukemia. Highly recommended.
Peter DeVries pens a passionate tale plump with driving emotions owned only by the subjected himself. Tears, laughter, anger, and down-to-earth reflectiveness are pulled from the reader at every turn. DeVries is masterful in taking us through his story of life. A must read for all. A definitive work that should be studied by everyone desiring to be published.