“O money, money! . . . Thou art the test of beauty,
the judge of ornament, the guide of fancy, the index
of temper, and the pole star of the affections.”

—Daniel Defoe

It is an odd thing for someone who has written an approving book on Peter DeVries and who also has testified in court against pornography to find a book by that agreeable author, more or less, on that disagreeable subject. In The Prick of Noon there is a familiar DeVries type, a social climber, in this case one Eddie Teeters from Backbone, Arkansas, a fellow who has made it to the upper economic echelons by producing what he calls sexucational films.

That is, he claims they are educational. That some of them depict “group sex” is all right for Eddie, since those films show how not to do it. Are we to believe this? Are we even to believe that Eddie believes it? It’s difficult to determine; although there are certain similarities to The Great Gatsby, also about a parvenu who has taken a low but fast road to wealth, there are certain differences. For one thing, the book about Gatsby is told by Nick Carraway, who gives us a more detached perspective on the heroic figure than we get here, where Eddie himself tells his own tale. There is a sophisticate available to do the telling, one Jerry Chirouble—inherited-rich and set up as a publisher just to have something to do, though he never publishes any of the manuscripts he solicits. But he’s only in the narrative as the desideratum. In that regard, then, the book is similar to what Gatsby might have been had Jay Gatsby told it himself.

In that case, we probably wouldn’t have learned that the narrator’s real name was James Gatz; in this one, the withheld name is Monte Carlo, Teeter’s professional tag, which of course goes in the opposite direchon socially, as if Gatz had an underworld name (Kid Guts? Jimmy-the-Gat?) he hid from his neighbors. Another difference is that while Gatsby already has his fake Norman castle in place. Teeters goes shopping for his. And he’s never known a Daisy.

One thing Gatz and Teeters do have in common is a general approval of The American Dream, at least as it might be conceived of by a mafioso. Fitzgerald was half in love with it himself, but picked at some of its intellectual support when he parodied at the end of his book some of Ben Franklin’s Pelagian advice on selfimprovement. And, of course, by choosing an underworld figure to illustrate the success story, Fitzgerald calls into question the story line itself Gatz has the same values Tom Buchanan and Nick Carraway do, or does so far as goals are concerned—it’s just that the means aren’t legal.

How does DeVries feel about this in the case of Eddie Teeters? Ironic? DeVries’ parents were Dutch immigrants who settled in an enclave of likeminded folk in Chicago, poor (at first: his father went from hauling coal and ice to having a moving/storage company) and hard-core Calvinist (at first: his mother never sang in church after a daughter died). Peter was sent at some sacrifice to Galvin College, but turned both against his father’s hopes that he would become a minister and his peers’ expectations that he make a career in politics. He has made it quite well in literature. He was publishing in Esquire in the 30’s, was editor of Poetry in the early 40’s, and soon thereafter reached The New Yorker through his own ability and through James Thurber, whom he’d met at a fund-raiser for the poetry journal. Married to another writer, Katinka Loeser, he moved to Westport when his family came along. He’s often said his trip has been from The Celestial City to Vanity Fair.

He has always been equivocal about this journey. Often, as Roderick Jellema (one of his early critics) has said, DeVries’ work has suggested that “sin isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” DeVries’ people certainly are often disappointed in the trip after arriving at their destination. The human situation is still whatever it was to begin with, even in Merrymount, Connecticut (the setting for Noon), except it’s more sophisticated, more aware, more New Yorkerish. For someone as witty as DeVries, and for his fans, that may be as much as there is. In Noon, though, the hero is not quite the same as in the 20-plus other DeVries novels where the fellow who has made it in advertising comes to this disillusion. The typical DeVries protagonist may have produced heavily suggestive commercials exploitative of women and pandering to men, but that’s still not porn. Or, when the narrator was a writer, he may have written erotically, but that’s not porn. (Eros is the sophisticate’s porn?) And always he groans at women who say ices (I sez), at men whose hopefully modifies nothing.

Here it’s good ol’ boy Eddie Teeters, though, who is the gauche one. At the novel’s opening, he is only six months past mispronouncing epitome (how does he do on epigone?) and now wants to get so well set in exurbia that eventually he can have children who will reject him and all he’s striven for as “plastic.” A different perspective, then. Very soon he meets his Daisy, his first “nice” girl. She is Cynthia Pickles, a toothsome sophisticate who wants backers for an avant-garde journal she is editing. To her, Teeters says he “must of made a delible impression on you . . . “—this after she has turned right-side-up his copy of Existential Thought Since Kierkegaard, over which he had been eyeing her at poolside. The pool is a public one taken over from a failed country club: would Chirouble go there? would Cynthia? I dunno: I’m a new boy myself, and as such, one trembles for Teeters—waiting for him to saying something like “nest pa?”

There is, as is usual in DeVries books, an alternative female for the narrator to choose, a woman who is usually a bit too tacky or prurient or too tackily prurient to be ultimately satisfactory as a mate. In this instance Toby Snapper, a waitress in the converted club, is available: she is available indeed, but since Teeters hopes to raise himself “by his own . . . petard,” she doesn’t seem quite right. As usual, there are other female asides—DeVries loves women in their variousness—but these are dropped threads: a Wellesley lit major who has a summer job as a swillperson (drives a garbage truck) probably is there for the fun of seeing such a one in such a job, and Roxy, an assistant to Chirouble, is in too indeterminate a position to be developed—she’s about halfway (ascending) between Toby and Cynthia. One gets used to this sort of smorgasbord of sexual opportunities that DeVries presents in his works, though one wishes he would pare it down a bit (art is supposed to). There is also a motorcycle gang, which at first challenges and then supports Teeters, at one time providing an escort for his outrageous Land Yacht of a car. Teeters promises them work, but can’t deliver after he gets into censorship difficulties, and they seem merely to float off.

Teeters courts Cynthia’s mother, a representative of old-fashioned values, convincing her he’s true blue (her phrase). She wants grandchildren, which her step-daughter Cynthia does not plan to give her. For a time the mother seems likely to adopt Eddie. But DeVries pairs her off with another old geezer with soda fountain values, and she’s taken care of Thus we have the oddity of an author presenting characters younger than himself as exemplars of virtues much older than those of his narrator. It doesn’t seem right.

Toby is the one who pairs with Teeters, finally, showing that Noon‘s opening line is right, that “the trouble with treating people as equals is that the first thing you know they may be doing the same thing to you.” Cynthia, who had manipulated Teeters to climax while they watched him (she ignorantly) act or perform in one of his own films, marries Chirouble. It seems Teeters does the close-ups himself, from the neck down, at least, leading up to, as he calls it, la mort douche. Toby recognizes him by a mole he has, and Cynthia finds out; neither cares.

Ought they? Ought anyone? A California court recently convicted a pornfilm producer on the basis of that state’s anti-pimp law: the court ruled that anyone who hired women to perform sexually was a pimp—and his employees prostitutes. At Teeters’ trial, DeVries has the defense refer obliquely to Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, then goes on to contradictory experts who cancel each other out on the artistic merit of sexucational films. The real question for DeVries seems to be whether it would seduce susceptible personalities, but the asinine pregnant teenager (who says kwee for could we) who testifies cannot be taken seriously.

The part about the expert witnesses I believe: in the case where I testified, a social worker and a sociologist/sex therapist said the films in question were innocuous films (they were the sort usually advertised as XXX Rated), in which the people involved were merely being “friendly.” My counter was that literature ordinarily has twoand three-dimensional characters, flat ones and round ones (cf E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel), those who are not integral to the story and those whose personalities are developed fully. In pornography, the characters are not even flat, not even two-dimensional: they are one-dimensional. Pornography treats people, especially women, as Things. This seemed to convince the jury, though the $15,000 fine was of no consequence. These films are produced by organizations that, as Meyer Wolfsheim says in Gatsby, have “gonnegtions.”

Not so in The Prick of Noon: Eddie Teeters apparently has no underworld gonnegtions and is broken financially by his suspended sentence. Teeters has to drive his Land Yacht for hire, but he’s happy being married to Toby, who is pregnant—see, pornographers are normal after all, yearn for a regular life—and he’s trying to place a script of his own. At the close, he’s having a hard time raising the money, though he has faith he can do it.

Which, of course, is the heart of the whole thing: in a Marketplace Economy, that which can be sold will be sold, and that which can’t be won’t be. Probably that’s better than a Planned (Censoring) Society, but DeVries doesn’t address this issue directly, no more than he explores the infrastructure of pornography. Nor does he ask what its actors are like: his star is named Mea Culpa, a woman who thinks it’s like Mia Farrow’s name. We never get to know Mea, for she remains a flat character. On screen, I’ll bet she was one-dimensional.

At the trial in which I participated, the defense was more polished and much better paid than the prosecution, and it was a challenge matching wits with him. I did it, incidentally, in part to match wits, to have that experience, and because no one from Social Sciences would do it, though it was to them that the County Prosecutor, one of their graduates, originally appealed. They did agree to see the flicks, requisite to qualifying to testify one way or another. They all declined to witness. though, in general, on grounds that if “that’s what people want to pay their money for. . . . ” All of them were liberals. It was fun to see them for once favor the Marketplace.


[The Prick of Noon, by Peter DeVries (Boston: Little, Brown) $14.95]