The Mackerel Plaza (1958)
I Hear America Swinging (1976)
Peter de Vries
Peter De Vries (1910–1993) was a brilliant American comic novelist who today is almost wholly forgotten. De Vries wrote more than twenty novels, but when he died, none was still in print. (Only two of the novels are in print today: The Blood of the Lamb  and Slouching Towards Kalamazoo .) Later we will come to why he went out of style. But as what goes around comes around and then may go around again, an argument can be mustered that De Vries’s time has indeed come again, that he is eminently deserving of rediscovery as a novelist who, notwithstanding his avowed atheism and the comic character of his books, had something worthwhile to say about religious issues.
Rediscovering De Vries may be especially worthwhile because his works help us come to terms with an important development: the undermining of the American religious consensus of fifty years ago, in which belief, however shallow, was virtually universal. The challenge to that bygone consensus is evident in the recent bestsellers by the triumvirate of the so-called New Atheists: Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Whatever one thinks of their books and the several spirited ripostes they have stimulated, it is hard to deny that American religion has become more interesting than it was half a century ago.
De Vries himself tried in his own way to spark this kind of debate at a time when just about everyone else insisted on avoiding it. He was ahead of his time, or, put another way, social reality has finally caught up with him.
De Vries reacted against the mid-20th-century consensus precisely because he realized that religion is of greater importance than the consensus suggested. In this respect he can be compared to two other novelists of his time who are better known today, and who, unlike him, wrote from an explicitly theistic perspective: Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy.
The consensus that O’Connor, Percy and De Vries each challenged was brilliantly dissected in Will Herberg’s influential 1955 volume, Protestant-Catholic-Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology. Herberg depicted an America in which religious belief was widespread but hollow—where, for example, more than 80 percent of Americans considered the Bible to be the “revealed word of God”, but 53 percent could not name even a single one of the four gospels. Furthermore, the same Americans who claimed that religion was very important to them also asserted that their religious views had no impact on their ideas about politics and business. In sum, Herberg said, American religion had “lost much of...