Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Mackerel Plaza by Peter De Vries

‘The Mackerel Plaza’ is essentially a comedy about a minister in 1950s suburban New England whose wife dies in a boating accident. As much as he loved his wife Andy Mackerel simply wants to move on, he has found another woman and he wants to marry her as soon as possible. His parishioners however will not let him forget her, they insist on calling her a saint and they want to erect monuments and hold countless dinners for her.

It is also a farce about liberal Christianity. Mackerel has created his dream church – a church without God. For his liberal Christianity Christ came not to convert sinners but more to irritate the religious. He creates a luxurious church with a medical practice, a psychiatrist and a drama company. The church provides him with a car, a housekeeper and he is relatively happy. However his parishioners are not happy, some have a strong sense that they are sinners, they want to be evangelical and have revival campaigns, Andy is furious!

The first page has one of the funniest incidents of the entire book:

“’What can I do for you Reverend Mackerel?’

‘I want to report a billboard in the Mobile Bay section,’ I said glancing out the window over the treetops to an intersection where the offending object was plainly visible. ‘This is a residential area, where I need not remind you public hoardings are strictly forb– ‘

‘Yes, I know. You’re triple-A out there. Please don’t get upset Reverend Mackerel. Go on.’ The woman – or more likely girl - was audibly eating something a fact not calculated to soothe Mackerel’s nerves or cool his pique.

‘I assume a waiver was granted by the Zoning Board or the signboard wouldn’t have got as far as it is,# I went on.

‘How far is it?’

‘It’s up! I can see it now from my study window, over there on Cooper Street and I don’t like it.’

‘What does it say Reverend Mackerel?’

‘It says –‘ I craned my neck to look out the window, as though I had again to verify the testimony of my senses.’ It says, “Jesus Saves”.’

‘Oh, yes.’ There was a silence at the other end, except for an act of deglutition, and a faint crackling noise which I could believe was that of a successor to a swallowed caramel being wrapped ‘I only work here’ the girl declared at last, ‘ but I do remember something about the board deciding that wasn’t strictly commercial.’

‘Commercial! That’s not the point. It’s vulgar. And the lettering is that awful new phosphorescent stuff – green and orange. No this is blight on the landscape and I protest.’

‘I know what you mean, now that you mention it. You’re not the first to complain. The Presbyterians are appalled. The Episcopalians are sick. All the better element there, with property values at stake – ‘

And it goes on! I was laughing out loud! Mackerel goes on to state ‘It is the final proof of God’s omnipotence that he need not exist in order to save us.’

It is a play on the whole idea that what we need in modern society is old time religion but it is so funny at the same time. I also get the impression that what Mackerel really wants is a good society without the need for religion.

The humour gets better as Mackerel is pressured to say goodbye to his girlfriend in favour of the ‘high society ladies’ in his church who want him to spend all his time doing memorial work for the church. He has a wicked sense of humour and starts putting sexual double entendres into the sermon in order to shock people. At one point the psychiatrist asks him to ‘accept Jesus’ as that is the only way he can save his career!

I found this book in a secondhand bookshop in town, unfortunately De Vries has been out of print for some time. There are a few of his books on Abebooks. I am quite amazed that a book I bought quite by chance turned out to be so good.

It is a book for its time, I have an interest in liberal Christianity so that helped but it is one of the few books that I finished and couldn’t stop reading. A utterly brilliant book.

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