Peter de Vries is dead. This is sad but it is not news: he has been dead since 1993. It appears he will remain extinct. What is sadder is that none of his books is in print. You cannot buy any current edition of the works of this pre-eminent American humourist of the early post-war decades. From 1940 to 1986, he chronicled the full comedy of the full human tragedy.
De Vries found plenty of material for dark jokes in his war time military service, in his Calvinistic upbringing in the Dutch Reformed Church and in the death of his daughter from leukaemia. He transmuted grief into sobering mirth and we laughed ourselves silly. Now his books are no more.
Life is just as funny today as it was in De Vries’ lifetime. We have the media, the markets, religious institutions to entertain us. Our politicians are a joke. The pestilence that is our species still despoils the planet, continues to kill, it maims and lies still – and records its glory in the daily newspapers. The papers are on the way out, and soon or sooner the planet appears likely to kick us out too.
Meanwhile a distinctive genre of off-beat humorous fiction for which Australia was once famed has died, unlamented and unsung. I refer to the Annual Income Tax Return. In the 1970’s and 1980’s creative accountants and millionaires and gifted liars combined to create songs from the bottom of the harbour and paid no tax. How they laughed.
Nowadays the accountant is effectively a secret agent of the ATO. She shows no interest in creative fiction, steering me instead along the narrow and straitened path of maximum taxation. The tax return she creates is deadly non-fiction. She then charges me and – for all I know – receives a commission from the Tax Office. This would make her a double agent. We have here the makings of a spy story. Would that the story were fiction.
The news is not all grim. This new genre in literature, the Tax Spy story, incubates in a silence disturbed only by the sound of calculating machines at the ATO.