Berger, Thomas (Vol. 18)
Berger, Thomas 1924–
An American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and editor, Berger is best known for his satiric caricatures of American life. He deals often with paradox, exploring the human struggle with absurdity, America's myths, and the deceptiveness of modern society. Fantasy, hyperbole, attention to detail, and a love of language are important elements in Berger's style. Little Big Man is generally considered his best work. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, 8, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Crazy in Berlin takes its epigraph from an old song: "You are crazy, my child; You must go to Berlin…." Title and epigraph provide a suitable focus to the shifting and multicolor meanings of the book. Private Carlo Reinhart is barely twenty-one years old when he arrives in Berlin, singular, thoughtful, and innocent, a mammoth-sized child of life's ambiguities. He leaves the city on a medical discharge from the "psycho" ward of the Army hospital. As for Berlin itself, it is a clever cynosure of the conflicts which permeate the action of the novel…. Berger, pressing his symbolism still further, makes [Berlin] the scene of a cloak and dagger story, of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence men, and of Double Agents, engaged in a monstrous mummery of illusion and reality, truth and falsehood, right and wrong. Nothing is ever what it seems to be…. There is no resolution to the contradictions it contains. Except, of course, the non-resolution furnished by grim irony, by that strange kind of comedy, black, satirical, gallows humor, which is indigenous to Berlin—recollections of the drawings and cartoons of Simplicissimus come to mind—and which qualifies the final apprehension of life in Crazy in Berlin. Baudelaire, Joyce, and Eliot, we recall, have chosen to define for us, in compelling, ironic forms, the nature of modern paralysis by a metaphor of the Unholy City: Paris, Dublin, and London. Moving in the same...
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L. L. Lee
[Little Big Man] is a most American novel. Not just in its subject, its setting, its story (these are common matters), but in its thematic structures, in its dialectic: savagery and civilization, indeed, but also the virgin land and the city, nature and the machine, individualism and community, democracy and hierarchy, innocence and knowledge, all the divisive and unifying themes of the American experience, or, more precisely, of the American "myth." In other words, Berger's novel is an attempt to explore that mythic experience from the viewpoint of the twentieth century American, intellectual and sensitive, wishing to discover unity, and yet almost desperately aware of division. And so, as with most American novelists, the meanings Berger finds are ambiguous, ironic, inevitably multiple.
It is out of his desire to explore the myth, and yet not to become the sentimental victim of it, that Berger, I suggest, chose his form, i.e., the picaresque; and it is the eminent suitability of form to themes that makes the novel successful, a neat complexity of idea and story. It is the picaresque's tone and shape that allow the novelist to be in the experience and still observe it from the outside; for, although the picaresque is at bottom realistic, it does make room for the extraordinary, for symbolic comment. And too, the picaresque, with its wide range of action and of society, is another way of making a microcosm…. (pp. 35-6)...
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It is satire and incongruity which strike the reader about [Little Big Man] especially because both are so seldom used as important style devices in western writing. Berger has Jack Crabb tell (into a tape recorder when he is over 100) what happened to him from 1852 to 1876. (p. 286)
[The] picaresque pattern of the first half of the novel, is sometimes too involved and too fragmentary…. [Crabb] is a bounder, gold miner, gambler, gun-slinger, speculator, sharper, laborer, teamster, buffalo hunter, and finally an unwanted scout for General Custer in the Little Big Horn campaign. This entirely "Western," lawless, reckless, and shiftless career is climaxed when Crabb is the only true survivor of the Battle of the Little Big Horn…. (p. 287)
But Jack Crabb does much more than merely tear around the West. One of the astonishing qualities of Little Big Man is that what happens is much less important than what Crabb, its "central intelligence," makes of his experience: a grand and sad comedy of western manners. Like Huck Finn, Jack Crabb's half-baked education leaves him literate enough to read signs but intuitive enough to cut through people's appearance. Berger has written that Crabb was "born in my intuition, not my reason," and it is this combination of intuition and reason—in author and character—which makes Crabb a unique western literary creation.
Incongruity is the key to...
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[The chain of events in "Neighbors"] makes no sense. Nor will the novel ever provide a key to why Earl's placid suburban life has suddenly gone haywire. On the other hand, it makes all the sense in the world, the way a dialogue by Eugene Ionesco makes sense. "Neighbors" parodies all the rituals of neighborliness—the competitiveness, the bonhommie, the striving for civility in the face of what seems to be barbarism—and compresses into a single day a lifetime of over-the-back-fence strife.
I do wish the surprise ending flowed a little more logically out of the plot's beguiling irrationality, and that Mr. Berger had explained the mysterious reappearance of a missing house key—which pokes a small black hole in the plot into which a little of its energy leaks. Still, I read the novel feeling by turns curious, irritated, enraged, amused, and frightened, but never for an instant did I lose interest. Robert Frost may have argued that good fences make good neighbors. Thomas Berger demonstrates that shotguns and kicks in the the groin do even better. (p. 240)
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "'Neighbors'," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 1, 1980 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. III, No. 6, 1980, pp. 239-40).
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Thomas R. Edwards
In "Neighbors" Thomas Berger makes dark comic art out of neighborliness. The novel begins quietly, as Earl and Enid Keese, in their exurban house at the end of a lonely road, wonder if they shouldn't have asked the new couple next door over for a drink. (p. 1)
[From] edgy beginnings in rudeness and deceit, Mr. Berger develops a tale of domestic guerrilla warfare next to which the broadest television sit-com seems pallid and genteel….
This immensely funny knock-about farce manages to express serious matters without advertising them as such. At one point Harry casually observes that whereas Earl thinks results matter, he himself values motives, and the distinction could serve as a dim, shifting philosophical center to Mr. Berger's story. As the neighbors impose pain and humiliation on Earl, he does begin to live closer to his own springs of action—the capacity for violent aggression that lies buried within his acquired civility. He is the right victim, one who can rise to the passionate response their strange games seem to invite. What begins as a practical defense of what he takes to be his life—social decency, worldly goods, family and home—shifts, under their ruthless pressure, toward something more essential, a new sense of self that can survive the loss of the people and things and styles his old self had seemed to require….
When Earl first meets Ramona, she says, after a particularly...
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It is a mystery of literary criticism that Thomas Berger, one of the most ambitious, versatile, and entertaining of contemporary novelists, is hardly ever mentioned in the company of America's major writers. He is a wit, a fine caricaturist, and his prose crackles with Rabelaisian vitality. His phenomenal ear for oddnesses of speech appropriates as readily the grey malapropisms of the silent majority in Reinhart in Love ("I know you'll be taking advantage of the G.I. Bill," says the hero's dad, "full tuition paid and in addition this generous emollient per the month of expenses. A wonderful opportunity, and one never before vouchfaced to the American veteran.") as the winning tall-tale garrulousness of Little Big Man, a savory reminiscence of the Cheyenne Indians in frontier days.
Crazy in Berlin, the first of Berger's 10 novels, ushers us into the jumbled, seedy, conspiratorial atmosphere of the divided German capital after World War II, and no work of American fiction or reportage about that place and period carries a greater feeling of authenticity. But the special Berger touch is his seesaw from the grim chaotic backdrop to the high spirits of the susceptible young hero, Carlo Reinhart…. When it comes to impressing critics and readers, [Berger] may have been vanquished (with the exception of the best-selling Little Big Man, which appeared at a time when Indian grievances had caught hold of the popular...
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Critics have agreed since Crazy in Berlin that Berger is "one of the finest writers alive," one of the "living greats," one of "a small group of important American writers," but they have been uneasy about defining exactly in what this greatness resides…. What is most immediately evident about Berger is that he is a writer who loves to write (not always the case with writers). He has said that he's at work not to expose or change the world but to provide himself with an alternative; he writes for the sake of creation. We can trace his trying out, with obviously exuberant relish, the possibilities of his craft, of that amorphous something called prose narrative: Fantasy parable in Regiment of Women, the science fiction of a futuristic society in which traditional sex roles are reversed—with no better results. The genre of the police novel in Killing Time with its flat sharp sheen: in it the crime and punishment of an insane (or deific) murderer are presented with the detachment of the lens on a film noir camera. The chivalric romance of Arthur Rex, his twentieth-century adaptation of the Camelot legend—as Tennyson's Idylls of the King is the nineteenth-century adaptation. The American epic of Little Big Man (our Indian wars are our Iliad) with its ironic eiron of a narrator in the great national vein of Twain.
The critical line on Berger has always been that he is a...
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