Nearly if less mythically as private as Thomas Pynchon, but far more prolific and accessible, Thomas Berger has spent the past thirty-four years publishing an astonishing array of novels: the picaresque Reinhart series; parodies of detective fiction (Who Is Teddy Villanova, 1977) and of Arthurian romance (Arthur Rex: A Legendary Novel, 1978); futuristic satire (Regiment of Women, 1973); and retellings of the Oresteia (Orrie’s Story, 1990) and American history (Little Big Man, 1964, perhaps his best and certainly his most important work). Berger’s keen and generally sardonic interest in madness and violence (in Little Big Man and especially Killing Time, 1967) and in American family life in some of its most bizarre manifestations (Sneaky People, 1975; Neighbors, 1980; and Orrie’s Story) are once again in the forefront in Meeting Evil, his eighteenth novel and latest proof that the quietly innovative and wickedly satirical Berger deserves far more critical attention than he has received thus far. Critics and even reviewers seem wary of a writer nearly as prolific as Joyce Carol Oates and as offbeat as Stanley Elkin, as if this combination along with Berger’s novelistic virtuosity makes him strangely suspect. In addition, there are the risks that Berger takes. In Meeting Evil, for example, the plot is at once banal and horrific, and the characters conventionally realistic yet strangely, eerily cartoonish, lightly sketched against a backdrop that seems, despite the mention of specific place names, oddly blank. The novel’s world is, then, both familiar and strange, and what is worse—and better—this strangeness seems to exist on some as yet uncharted border separating the stark realism of an Edward Hopper from the surreal geometry of a Giorgio de Chirico (as opposed to the more typically surreal fluid grotesqueries of a Salvador Dalí or a Max Ernst).
Reading like some macabre (and therefore welcome) retelling of Frank Capra’s kitsch film classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Meeting Evil begins by limiting its main character in terms that are at once specific yet oddly attenuated, and in a voice that is clearly focused yet disconcertingly detached, sardonically deadpan:
Perhaps John Felton had got married too young, but he really did love Joanie and, besides, she was pregnant and came from a family which, though believing abortion was wrong, would have been disgraced by an illegitimate birth, with several of its members active in local church affairs and one in the politics of the county. So he became a father the first time almost simultaneously with becoming a husband.
John is clearly if ironically a good man, but he is also a passive man. He is willing enough to stay home on Mondays (his one day off) with the kids so that Joanie can get out of the house, but he is also pathetic enough to ask rhetorically whether he should prepare his “specialty,” spaghetti and canned clam sauce. Amiable and charitable to a fault, he seems literally and therefore comically unable to think negatively about anyone, and that leaves him woefully unprepared for meeting evil one Monday morning in the person of Richie, the stranger who rings the bell at John’s house and asks for a push to start his car. Ever the Good Samaritan, John obliges. Soon, however, kindness takes a wrong turn. Polite at first, the stranger turns hectoring, even nasty. Once the car begins to roll, John discovers that his shirt is caught in the driver’s door, and he is forced to run alongside until he finally gains Richie’s attention—by grasping him by the throat.
That crisis over, John’s anger turns into guilt; instead of returning to Joanie, he accompanies Richie to town to find a service station. Once there, he decides to walk home, only to find that the knee he bumped pushing the car makes that impossible. He enters a taxi office, but the dispatcher will not get a cab for anyone who looks the way John does—unshaven, carelessly dressed—unless he pays in advance. This John cannot do, having left his house without his wallet. John, however, cannot remain angry. Leaving the office, he watches as Richie’s car is struck by another, driven by a woman who, having only a driver’s permit, pleads with John to tell the police that he was in the car with her. John, ever the law-abiding citizen, is unwilling to do this, but even before he can decide firmly against making the leap from Good Samaritan to white knight, rescuing the damsel (actually a cocktail waitress named Sharon) in distress, Richie shows up to say that he was in the car. Satisfied, the police officer drives off—at which point everyone realizes that Richie’s car has been stolen. John and Sharon are dismayed, but Richie seems unperturbed, more interested in buying doughnuts (with Sharon’s money) than in contacting the police. Sitting in the...
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