Study Guide

Best Friends

by Thomas Berger

Best Friends Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Roy Courtright and Sam Grandy have known each other more than twenty years, growing up in the same town, attending the same prep school, and going away to the same college. When Sam’s father died, Roy stepped in to offer paternal influence, and in most ways the two men appear to fit the old maxim of opposites attracting. Sam is happily married and devoted to his wife; Roy has remained a bachelor and earned a reputation as a philanderer. Sam is puzzled by Roy’s sexual flightiness, and Roy cannot imagine settling down with anyone for any length of time.

Roy, in fact, decides to terminate his most recent romantic relationship, with Francine Holbrook, and when he meets her to explain his intentions, her jealous ex-husband appears and is restrained by Roy. In an escalating series of events, Holbrook murders his ex-wife and kills himself, and his children sue Roy for instigating the disaster. At the same time, Sam suffers a heart attack which lands him in the hospital, and Roy is forced to juggle calls from his lawyer, demands from Sam, and the neglected details of his own vintage car business.

Roy soon finds himself caught between his friend’s demands for one loan after another to cover failed business ventures, while Sam’s wife, Kristin, insists that Roy discontinue supporting her husband’s financial profligacy. Inevitably Roy and Kristin find themselves in each other’s arms, fulfilling Sam’s suspicion that they are having an affair. Just as Roy appears to arrive at a solution to his too-complicated life, the novel takes another twist that redefines all that has previously taken place.

Berger is a writer of astonishing versatility in a career that spans forty-five years and twenty-two novels. All of his works are forays into new fictional territory, and often they are loving reinventions of other fictional subgenres or rewritings of the works of writers as diverse as George Orwell, Daniel Defoe, and Raymond Chandler. In Best Friends Berger stakes his claim to new fictional territory, while returning to some familiar concerns.

Not the least of these concerns is Berger’s fascination with the suburban United States, terrain he has explored in Sneaky People (1975),Neighbors (1980), The Feud (1983), and Meeting Evil (1992), among other titles. These are the places most American readers regard as the “real” America, places of bedrock values that are characterized by their residents’ quiet, unassuming lifestyles based on routine and order. People in such towns assume that their lives represent the norm and offer a coherent, relatively peaceful experience. In Berger’s novels such places initially present a placid facade, which is disrupted. In Neighborsthe Other intrudes on the sleepy predictability of a dead-end street; inMeeting Evil wickedness incarnate invades a family’s life; in The Feudlongstanding annoyances and grievances burgeon into a series of catastrophes; and in Sneaky People ordinary lives are full of secrets that eventually see the light of day.

In Best Friends an affluent suburb appears to have spawned a pair of devoted companions who have shared their lives since childhood. The intimacy of this place appears to encourage bonds of trust and acceptance, and indeed Roy and Sam believe that they fully know and accept each other. The opening scene, in which Roy shares a beer with his friend as they tease each other about their differences, suggests a lifetime of tolerance. In Berger’s small-town America, everyone appears to know everyone else’s business, thus all the other characters are familiar with Roy’s womanizing. The central irony in each of these novels, and especially in Best Friends, is that these characters ultimately fail to know each other.

Kristin Grandy and Margaret Forsythe, Roy’s secretary, as well as the two men, arrange their lives around assumptions of who their friends, neighbors, and employers are; each of these assumptions is proved false. For instance, Roy believes that Kristin does not like him, when she has actually been attracted to him since adolescence. As the novel...

(The entire section is 1707 words.)