Thomas Berger Essay - Berger, Thomas (Vol. 8)

Berger, Thomas (Vol. 8)

Berger, Thomas 1924–

American novelist, playwright, editor, and short story writer, Berger has had a steady output of novels since the publication of Crazy in Berlin in 1958. Little Big Man, a mock-heroic parody of the Old West and probably his best known novel, was made into a successful motion picture. In recent fiction, notably Regiment of Women and Who Is Teddy Villanova?, Berger has continued to write in the comic-satiric vein that is gaining him increasing recognition. The latter is an excellent burlesque of the conventional detective novel. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

[Surely Thomas Berger] should sign his novels Tom Berger by this time, if only as a hint to the reviewers, who can't make head or tail of him, that he really is a good guy. Berger's trouble with the critics is that he cannot keep a straight face, no matter what he's writing about. He has insulted history (Crazy in Berlin), all of Cincinnati (Reinhart in Love), and Custer's Last Stand (Little Big Man). [In Killing Time] he goes for what has always had its share of the licks in his novels, The American Mind, an organism that Mr. Berger can isolate, apparently by powers miraculous, and see with unbefuddled gaze…. The American mind is lonely, unintegrated, antisocial, other-directed, is poor in group-motivated direction, vocaliter nauseolissimo. It needs, of course, well, you know, it needs … but never mind.

Gentlemen, meet Lee Harvey Oswald. Meet a thoroughly lethal idealistic cry baby, spawn of America. He is, when he is upper-middle-class, straight and clean, and named Whitman, the very pride of America. A bit down the social scale, and named Speck, he is still 100 per cent American…. [He] is a sweet, gentle Mama's boy, and it's worth the price of the novel to meet Mama, as goofy a woman as ever George Price drew or showed you the secret of a whiter wash on TV…. A jury of middle-aged American mothers would probably find him their ideal of a son: he is so pure he wishes he were sexless (dear boy!); his heart is tender toward the lame and blind and helpless. He is, in short, that inexplicable schmuck, The American Murderer. (pp. 1282-83)

This is not a roman à clef but a roman à crochet: practically any key will fit. The police, lawyers, families of the deceased: all are examples of the drifting mind Mr. Berger has undertaken to study….

[Mr. Berger] is … the best satirist in the United States, the most learned scientist of the vulgar, the futile, and the lost, and the most accurate mimic in the trade. Behind the very prose in which he has cast this novel one can detect the wad of gum and the tabloid reporter's prurient glint of depraved genius for the sickening, satisfying detail that sells newspapers. None of Mr. Berger's other novels is written in such lunch-counter prose; he has invented it for Killing Time alone….

But one must not imagine that Mr. Berger is merely a diligent camera. Detweiler is one of the most complex characters in modern fiction, the first outrageously impenetrable character in a gallery of outrageous characters…. Some graduate student with half a mind will soon write him up for the English journals as a Christ Figure. He smells of Dostoyevsky and Mary Baker Eddy. He is part Quaker, part Rasputin. The eeriest thing about him is that he is wholly believable, which is to say, of course, that Thomas Berger is a magnificent novelist. (p. 1283)

Guy Davenport, in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1967; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), November 14, 1967.

Sneaky People … is a novel laid in small-town Midwestern America in the mid-1930s. Yet it is written with the altered sensibilities and in the style of the mid-Seventies, a style which permits a degree of license on the printed page that would have been inconceivable in a novel written about the mid-Thirties in the mid-Thirties. Thus, despite the attention lavished on period details—brand names, radio shows, and vanished mores alike—the net effect is une plastique, an imposture rather than a convincing reproduction of the life of the time. Counterfeits need to be even more carefully contrived than the real thing. (p. 1127)

The whole of Sneaky People, in fact, reads as Our Town might have, had it been written by Henry Miller. But as Thornton Wilder or even John O'Hara knew, to name two extremes among contemporary chroniclers, in the genuine novels of the Thirties, sex was only one of the things people had on their minds.

Mr. Berger's talents and style are exceptionally well-suited to reflect current life. When used to reproduce the features of an age so remote in standards from the present, however, they result in grotesque caricatures rather than penetrating portraiture. Since some of us need all the help we can get in fathoming our own times, let us hope Mr. Berger's next novel is set in the Seventies. (pp. 1127-28)

Rene Kuhn Bryant, "Berger's Plastic Nostalgia," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1975; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), October 10, 1975, pp. 1127-28.

"Who Is Teddy Villanova?" is a black comic parody of tough-guy detective fiction out of Hammett and Chandler. Despite its seedy urban setting and wildly violent, hypertrophied plot, it is written in Berger's arch, allusive and rhetorically exhibitionistic style: loquacious, periphrastic, euphuistic—as if spoken by a demented William F. Buckley. By hitching his narrative to the detective novel, Berger has been forced to keep the plot moving, no matter how baroque his style becomes. As usual, his chief emotion is Swiftian contempt for the mindless, unlettered, sordid spectacle of modern life—in this case here in New York City. Yet there is also a manic glee in his endless vituperation. His comic verbal excess is the opposite of Joan Didion's terse, implosive style [in "A Book of Common Prayer"]. And if her temptation is bathos, Berger's is a kind of garrulous masturbatory cultural snobbery. His book is a cartoon; hers a novel. (p. 53)

Richard Locke, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 17, 1977.

Who is Teddy Villanova? The question that confounds and torments Russell Wren, the unlicensed private investigator who narrates Thomas Berger's latest novel, is not likely to keep many readers tossing at night. For in this takeoff on the private-eye novel, the arbitrary complexities of plot defy sustained attention. Which is as it must be: Berger's tribute to Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald is mainly a series of gags at the expense of those worthies, their intricate tales peopled by bizarre characters, and the whole concocted spirit of their enterprise. Is Berger, then, paying them deference or merely making mock of them? In either case, he has produced a work that is in many ways superior to its models.

Russell Wren does have one thing in common with Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer—he is honest. Without the incorruptible integrity of the protagonist, the center of any detective story, even a spoof, could not hold. But there the resemblance ends. Private eyes are tough guys who know how to deliver a kidney punch. Although Russell Wren, our battered eye, receives as many beatings per chapter as any detective hero in the literature, he wouldn't hurt a fly. He is less capable of self-defense than the small singing bird whose name he bears. (Or is he named for the celebrated 17th-18th century English architect who built so many churches, including St. Paul's? The derivation of names is of no small moment in a novel where the policemen are called Hus, Zwingli, Knox, and Calvin. Or are they policemen?)

Fiction's private eyes are usually shrewd analysts of humankind, experienced in the workings of life. When Wren sets himself to making deductions from the peculiar events that keep happening all around him, the reader can be certain of only two things: First, he will be entirely rational; and second, he will be entirely wrong. He is a victim of forces that do not submit to reason….

One of Wren's problems is that he is more at home with the magic of words than with events….

Actually, the whole book is a game of words; the very names in the lobby directory of Wren's dilapidated building keep reshaping themselves. And when it comes to puns, Berger has no mercy.

"'Excuse me for what might appear an impertinence,' I said to Washburn. 'But does your wife happen to be Teutonic?'

"'Too tonic?' he replied in what seemed genuine bewilderment."…

The temptation to quote from Teddy Villanova is irresistible; it is a series of skits that display, with great humor, Berger's special joy in juggling the language. A conversation between Wren and one of the detectives who keep popping up (is he really a detective?) becomes a contest in erudition:

"And what about Big Jake the Wop?" asks Wren, seeking clarification on a small point.

The detective replies: "No, Jake the Wop or Big Jake. To combine them is superfetation."

"Damn him," thinks Wren. "I had never heard that word in speech, and never read it but in the text of T. S. Eliot." (p. 12)

To rate a writer's works tends to be a fatuous enterprise, so I shall refrain from hazarding an opinion as to whether this novel is better than Berger's notable Little Big Man. What it is has in common with that otherwise quite different book is that it takes its inspiration from human quirkiness, bafflement at the world and irrepressible strivings. It is carried off with zest and a special sort of style that kids itself with exemplary earnestness. And, in case I haven't yet gotten the news across, it is very funny. (p. 13)

Walter Goodman, "The Shamus as Schlemiel," in The New Leader (© 1977 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), May 23, 1977, pp. 12-13.

Who Is Teddy Villanova? is first person and extravagant, not so much a parody of Hammett and Chandler as a confident, exceedingly literary adaptation of the form. Seventies cool rather than Forties bite…. This may be likable, but it is hard to imagine anyone liking a whole book of it. Chandler's style was often ornate and self-conscious. To make that style only words calling attention to themselves seems more an occupation for a late-night competition among friends than for a novelist.

Some sections are tedious…. But … late in the novel, I was unexpectedly enjoying myself, because the story is good enough to keep Berger himself interested in what he is doing. If you enjoy private-eye novels presumably you do so because you like the mode, but what distinguishes a good from a bad one is the way the story reveals materials that in some way are being savored rather than simply used. Berger's story is nonsense. Cops and fake cops, dead bodies that reappear but were never dead, alliances that shift so frequently that at some moment everyone except the hero is or seems to be an ally or enemy of everyone else, and, governing all, Teddy Villanova, who may commit murders, or counterfeit money, or run brothels for fetishists, or sell office buildings, or deal in obscene art objects on classical themes—or, most likely, not exist at all, in which case the problem is who invented him.

What the story manages to express, however, far better than the comments on the subject made by Berger's hero, is a view of New York. When a cop says "Did you cause that man to shuffle off his mortal coil?" I feel embarrassed, as much by its inanity as coming from New York's police as by the limpness of the joke. But when the swirling tale leads the private eye from being saved from arrest by the Gay Assault Team, to sleeping all night in a Barca-Lounger left on a sidewalk in front of a brownstone, to a gunning down in Union Square, to a high-rise where a stewardess who may be a Treasury agent lives, then the motion itself expresses a decadent, improbable, fascinating wilderness that is familiar enough to be plausible and distinctive, too. The hero is beyond conspiracy theories about the city, despite the countless possible conspiracies against him, because nothing, and no one, surely, could have thought up New York. (pp. 39-40)

In this novel the first person seems fully justified. Everything the hero sees is simply out there, existing not to be understood but to be encountered, and, if possible, accepted, and everything the hero is can be said in mannered prose since he is a figure without inwardness or complexity. At the end the hero is as he was at the beginning, but given what has happened, this is an accomplishment…. Who Is Teddy Villanova? is a good, accomplished minor novel; in these puffed up times I hope one can still offer such a judgment as genuine praise. (p. 40)

Roger Sale, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1977 NYREV, Inc.), May 26, 1977.