Thomas Berger Essay - Berger, Thomas (Vol. 5)

Berger, Thomas (Vol. 5)

Berger, Thomas 1924–

Berger, an American novelist, short story writer, editor, and playwright, is best known for his novel, Little Big Man. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Vital Parts confirms Berger's rank as a major American novelist, one whose stylistic fecundity, psychological insight, and social knowledge are seemingly inexhaustible. Reinhart [Berger's "likeable Midwestern slob"] continues to move, clownlike, through his familiar world of "asymmetrical impulses, like a laughter hopelessly mad, hopelessly free," large in physique, generosity, honesty, gullibility, optimism, and capacity for enduring psychosocial wounds….

As in earlier Reinhart novels, the pace of events in Vital Parts is as phenomenally rapid as the tempo of the prose, the outcome is unexpected, explanations emerge late, and one is bombarded with continual novelty….

The laughter threading Vital Parts brightens rather than obscures the depth of thought and emotion evoked by Thomas Berger's fiction. In Crazy in Berlin Reinhart had expressed in action more than in words the moral distinction between Jew and Nazi. In Reinhart in Love he again depicted ideas, in this case the essential humanity of the Negro and the fragility of love. Berger's newest novel dramatizes the tenuous contemporary existence of old-fashioned qualities anathema to Reinhart's son: "Our enemy is liberal, agnostic, rationalistic, moral relativists, 'men of goodwill,' 'common decency,' 'humanitarianism,' and all those frauds."

Will Reinhart, fat, anachronistic fool, survive the 1970s? One hopes so, for he has a basic humanism that should not be lost….

A comic allegorist of the worthwhile Middle American, skillfully wielding a colloquial diction and rhythm of extraordinary expressiveness, Thomas Berger is one of the most successful satiric observers of the ebb and flow of American life after World War II. His prolificacy promises a continued development of the tragicomic mode of vision, something American literature badly needs to compensate for the overextended silence of such formerly active writers as Ralph Ellison, Joseph Heller, and Thomas Pynchon [note that Weber was writing in 1970]. (p. 42)

Brom Weber, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1970 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), March 21, 1970.

At first, it is the ingenuity of Thomas Berger's Regiment of Women that fascinates. But, as with his great predecessor, Swift, Berger's storytelling technique is as good as his talent for satire, and it is not long before you are hurrying to unravel the next twist in the plot….

Berger has used rôle reversal and the sex war to raise bigger issues as targets for his satire. Gulliver has travelled through Aldous Huxley's territory to William Golding country.

It is easy to find the appropriate words to describe Thomas Berger: brilliant, provocative, witty, inventive. (p. 61)

John Mellors, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of John Mellors), July 11, 1974.

The main thrust of the comic novel from Chaucer to Vonnegut has been to present stylized exemplars of human behavior—a lineup of types—and then show how completely they represent all of us, despite our pretensions to individuality. Billy Pilgrim and the Wife of Bath may be cut out of cardboard, but are we any deeper? Not much, we suspect; and we laugh out of the shock of such total recognition. Nobody manages this better today than Thomas Berger, whose Sneaky People is typecast from beginning to end without invalidating its insight into American life….

This is Berger's seventh novel, following the Reinhart trilogy, Little Big Man, Killing Time and Regiment of Women. In all of these, he has displayed immense energy and comic invention, a deft hand with plotting, and some of the best dialogue around. Little Big Man, unfortunately obscured by the movie, is nothing less than a masterpiece. American history itself provided Berger with his types—a set of buckskin-fringed waxworks bedizened with legend—and in blowing the myths up to ridiculous proportions he paradoxically succeeded in reclaiming history. In Sneaky People, Berger is mining less profitable ore. His characters are types pure and simple, not archetypes—not the Custers and Hickoks but ordinary folks [whose] secret lives are no less banal than the ones they live in public. Sensibly, Berger doesn't strain himself, relying on the nostalgic gloss of the '30s and his impeccable sense of timing to keep us turning the pages. A modest but thoroughly enjoyable book.

Michael Harris, "A Garden of Devious Delights," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), April 20, 1975, p. 3.

What you do, see, is go out and buy "Sneaky People." Period. No questions asked. Strip off the dust jacket right there, in your local bookstore. Take it from me, you don't want any hint of the splendid, gaudy surprises beforehand. Come at this novel with the same delightful ignorance that Thomas Berger's characters have as their only stock in trade. When did you ever believe a publisher's blurb, anyway? Also, forget the cheap, put-down title. "Sneaky People" is funny, wise and very significant. What more do you need to know?

This is a novel about appearance and reality, person and persona. Berger prefers the padded bra in all of us. (p. 4)

Berger's style has been streamlined for action. In his "Reinhart" series, humor too frequently appeared at the gestural level. Berger would bloodhound metaphors like a Mountie. Now and then they were worn to nervous collapse by the chase. I can recall only one such instance in "Sneaky People."… [Comedy] in "Sneaky People" is based on larger misapprehensions, misapprehensions of character and intention. And on colloquial storytelling. This novel narrates in the third person as though that third person were just another middle-class burgher. More and more American novelists have begun to discover what Jewish novelists have known all along: that the omniscient observer is a regular guy, like you and me. He talks, he doesn't write. "Sneaky People," as a result, reads like swift, clear dialogue.

This is a good one. Witty, imaginative, human; solid-state in its masterful construction. Thomas Berger is not an unknown novelist, but he deserves more attention than he has received to date. If word-of-mouth sells books, as every publisher will tell you, let the word start here. Pass it on. (p. 5)

D. Keith Mano, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 20, 1975.

["Sneaky People"] gives us a convincing imitation of the thirties, and, perhaps because of the nostalgic influence of the period, a good deal is made of the sticky adolescence [experience]. Some serious comment on the duplicity of American society may have been intended, but in essence this book is simply an exuberant and crudely humorous entertainment, distinguished from the rest of the drugstore rack by its professional finish and its zestful language. (p. 126)

The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), June 9, 1975.