‘Slouching Towards Kalamazoo’ by Peter De Vries

Well, this was a tough read…

Slouching Towards Kalamazoo is set in 1963 and is about 15-year-old Anthony Thrasher, an underachieving student of sophisticated intelligence, who manages to get his schoolteacher pregnant and then falls in love with the child’s babysitter. An entertaining premise, right? Hilarity must ensue, right?

I wish.

It took me three months to get through this book, and I spent most of that time not reading it; it just required so much effort that I found it hard to work up the energy to face it. Peter De Vries uses the English language in ways I haven’t seen in a novel before and wouldn’t particularly like to see again. His sentence structures were often so convoluted that I had to read them several times over to make sense of them. See what you think of this:

It was to the mind’s instinctive alacrity in screening out the unendurable that must be laid my persisting view of this as all happening to someone else, say the recently shed suitor who gave incense and batik spreads, and who had been sent packing to Nepal with his walking papers and his mantra, to say nothing of his belief that he would return as something else, like a water ouzel or a dung beetle. (Page 29)

Yep, that’s a single sentence. Or try this one:

Hawthorne himself might conceivably be considered one of the long preparatory line preceding me, implicitly criticizing, as he did, the harsh rigidity of the custom he was delineating, at one juncture of the story even pointing out how Hester’s very punishment had set her apart, freeing her mind for latitudes of speculation beyond the reach of narrow-minded censors to whom, in fact, the scarlet letter had in an odd reversal become a badge of honor, like the crucifix on a nun’s bosom. (Pages 126-127)

It became all the harder when he threw in words I didn’t even understand: casuistry, soubriquet, epithelial, adumbrating… No wonder I had trouble gearing myself up to turn the page.

Moving past the language barrier, I do allow that the book has a certain measure of humour, with puns and irony scattered throughout. It actually has something of a cartoonish feel to it, owing to the fact that some of the characters are portrayed very much in caricature and rather outlandish names are given to both people (Doubloon, Breedlove) and places (Ulalume, Kalamazoo – although that last one is in fact a real city in the States). It also takes quite a humorous outlook on religion, offering comical commentary on both sides of the argument.

However, none of this particularly helps in connecting with the story or the main characters. The narrative is in the first person and is told from the adult Anthony’s point of view, but this is rather jarring when I’m really expecting to hear a 15-year-old’s voice and only serves to distance me from the protagonist. In addition, the dialogue is often as wordy as the narration and, going on the assumption that people didn’t really talk like that in the sixties, it makes certain characters appear rather unrealistic.

Sometimes I find it frustrating when a novel sets the framework of its plot against that of another. It would have been helpful to read The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne in advance of Slouching Towards Kalamazoo, as that book is quite heavily referenced in the opening third of this one. Having said that, I was glad to already be familiar with the W.B. Yeats poem, The Second Coming, which contains the line about slouching towards Bethlehem. At least that made me feel not entirely unintelligent.

I picked away very slowly at this book for a long time and then read the last 80 pages or so in a mad dash, just to get it finished. De Vries’s involved style of writing is not my cup of tea at all but I definitely admit it was useful for a different reading experience. For both readers and writers, it’s as important to know what you don’t like as much as what you do like.

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