Thursday, September 15, 2005

Forgotten Treasure

The Mackerel Plaza, by Peter DeVries, Read by Raymond Todd, Blackstone Audio, 1999

Throughout American literature there is a general strain of discovery and rediscovery that occasionally rewards us. Forgotten authors, once quite the bees’s knees in their day, their names for years only known to the cognoscenti and litterateurs, are constantly being dusted off, their forgotten works unearthed, their once fine reputations polished and burnished. Buried in an unmarked grave, all of her books out of print, Zora Neal Hurston languished in literary oblivion for decades until Alice Walker pulled her so mightily out of the void that it is nearly impossible to graduate from college, let alone high school, without stumbling across her work.

Peter DeVries is nowhere near as rare as Hurston once was (witness the existence of this novel on CD format), though I’d bet the family farm (if we had one) on his relative obscurity even in English major circles. Amazon searches bring up merely eleven entries, only one with cover art (for a completely different DeVries to boot), suggesting his danger of falling out of print. Google brings up a mere 9,600, most of which are either online bookshops or quotations culled from the usual sources. By the second page, we are into other Peter DeVries, a great deal of them Dutch. Wikipedia has no entry at all.

The comedy of errors, manners, and theology that is The Mackerel Plaza is told by one Reverend Andrew Mackerel who wakes one morning to find that a large and garish billboard reading “Jesus Saves!” has been erected near his home, within sight of his sitting room. Offended by this piece of evangelicalism, the good Rev. complains to the city zoning board and manages to fall in love with the secretary there. This makes for a slightly sticky situation as he is still well within the one year mourning period for his late wife and worries how his budding romance will be taken by the town. He and his young beloved, Molly Calico, take to trysting at cheap bars in a nearby seedy small city where he is seen entering a hotel, but not her. The gossip of the town ladies, and the maneuvering for his affections by his live-in housekeeper (who just happens to also be his dead wife’s sister) as well as Molly’s mother, further complicate matters. All the while, Reverend Mackerel is trying to dissuade the erector of the billboard, one Turnbull, from further memorializing Mackerel’s dead wife with an enormous fountain in the town, while the town elders are trying to convince Turnbull to dedicate several dozen acres for a new shopping district at whose heart the fountain memorial plaza will reside. Turnbull wishes to commemorate the late Mrs. Mackerel because he believes that she died trying to save his life while he was out gallivanting around on a boat he didn’t know how to pilot.

I’ve only sketched a portion of the twisting plot just to give you an idea of this whirring, satirical novel that manages throughout all of these complications to never quite break a sweat prose-wise. DeVries gives us characters finely, if thinly drawn (more a failing of Mackerel’s self-regarding perspective than authorial weakness), but with just the right dash to give it zing. Turnbull, a devout man who wants to live for the glory of God, also regales Mackerel with tales from his past, reliving his grand sinning days with a self-deluding attitude of regret. In one scene after Turnbull has just finished “confessing” his trysts, the good Reverend observes that he listed “among his shortcomings the number of times he had satisfied his companion in one night.”

Reverend Mackerel is a rather hysterical portrait of an ironic, perhaps too open-minded minister, the kind of man at which even the Unitarians might look askance. He’s the kind of minister who spends his time visiting his parishioners, trying to convince them out of visiting sick people in the hospital to sing hymns at them. A minister given to selecting his sermon text from Havelock Ellis in place of the Bible and including in his hymnal “Funiculi, Funicula” and “Has Anyone Seen Kelly?” One of his oft-quoted sermon conclusions runs, “It is the final proof of God’s omnipotence that He need not exist in order to save us.” When asked at one point by a skeptical city father, “Have you been baptized?” Mackerel quickly retorts, “I’ll ask my mother. She has an uncanny memory.”

The great weakness in all of this humor, from the standpoint of selling books and staying in print, is that it isn’t particularly broad or filled with many zingers. It is a quiet kind of intellectual humor, as over the heads of most of Mackerel’s parishioners as it is over most readers, no doubt. While there is some fine comedy involving a cup of whiskey mistaken for a cup of tea at a meeting of prim church matrons and in Molly Callico passing out in the cheap hotel while Mackerel is locked out, the great majority of the jokes are seeded throughout a running monologue that mocks everything America stands for, mocks it with a cruelly calculated indifference. When Mackerel feels the need to lecture the city fathers on why they should want to destroy him, egging them on, citing it as their primitive tribal needs, there are plenty of laughs, but they are of a subtle poison.

As stated above, it’s a hopeful sign that DeVries’ books are being resuscitated through, of all places, Blackstone Audio. In third place among major audiobook distributors not acting merely as normal publishing houses’ imprints, Blackstone must cast their nets farther afield than the big two and pan for gold in literature’s backwaters. It’s not too often they strike gold in either their lesser-known works or their lesser talented readers, but here they have pulled it off. Reader Raymond Todd has just the right wry tone for Mackerel’s observations while he (mostly) resists the urge to doll up his female characters’ voices for affect. It is clear he enjoyed the novel while reading it, which is another fine attribute, contagious in its way. For this fine work, an altogether unnecessary but welcome bit of gold.

No comments: