The Tents of Wickedness Author:Peter De Vries The Tents Of Wickedness is a brilliantly written, seriously funny, often very touching novel. — Charles ('Chick') Swallow is happily married, and has yielded to his destiny as a writer of a question and answer column for the local newspaper of his hometown, Decency, Connecticut. Yet he has 'sudden, inexplicable forebodings - hunches that Life mig... more »ht not yet have made its peace with him'. On the day we meet him he has (while taking a bath) an 'intimation of unfinished business'.
As well he might. Over the next year he is put through an emotional whirlwind. A childhood playmate of his, Beth ('Sweetie') Appleyard - who has willingly remained, for all intents and purposes, a helpless child - is once again brought into his life. Ever the incorrigible knight-gallant, Charles recognises her poetic talent, assists in her emotional growth and quickly increasing sense of personal freedom.
He succeeds so well she has a book of poems published and soon is living the fast and loose bohemian life in Greenwich Village. When her father and grand-mother die in an aeroplane crash, leaving Beth apparently financially independent, she tires of the party life, decides she wants a child in order to be fulfilled - but without the burden of a husband - and sees Charles as being in the perfect position to give her one.
The resistance he puts up falls apart when he finds out the alternative to himself in Beth's plans is his brother-in-law, Nickie Sherman, whose marriage is very nearly on the rocks. Charles then nobly (in his mind) goes to bed with Beth to save his sister's and Nickie's marriage. The sub-plot, of Nickie Sherman's acquiring an alternative personality as a master-thief (due to more of Charles's 'help') is first-rate, almost surreal comedy.
Everything appears to have settled down somewhat when the crisis comes. Beth finds out she will not get the money she has been expecting, and quickly reverts almost to her original helpless self - clinging to Charles and terrifying him with the possibility of his wife realising what he has done and the loss of his two children and happy home life. Half out of his mind, he entertains the 'literary' idea of murdering her. He fantasizes hilariously a court-scene in which he is literally holding the baby while Beth succeeds in her denials the child is hers. Charles's attempts to have Beth abort the baby fails when she escapes from the clinic and returns to Decency, where Charles's wife, Crystal, finally discovers his unfaithfulness.
Throughout the novel De Vries has kept up an astonishing level of comic inventiveness, much of it playing off modern literature - Charles finds echoes of famous novels in every situation, liberal amounts of Beth's 'original' poetry appear, cleverly parodying famous poets. The novel is loaded with literary allusions, from Dreiser to Caldwell, Joyce and The New Testament. This has led up to the point in which Charles, now totally exposed and insane with guilt and grief, 'awoke from troubled dreams one morning to find that he had been transformed in his sleep into a great pig'. Kafka's Metamorphosis is brilliantly re-imagined as Charles sets about proving to himself - and his family - his new form and identity. It is genuinely masterful comic writing.
In the end all is well. Everyone is wiser and chastened - even Beth, who, in the novel's closing pages, married to a 'sales manager of a retail shoe corporation', is shown to be an accomplished and original writer, celebrating in seven poems convention and tradition.
This is one of the best-written, original and delightful novels I have ever read. Published in 1959, it is as current in its concerns as any modern novel. Everyone who loves literature in general and humorous writing in particular should read this book.
The title comes from the 84th Psalm: 'I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness'.« less