The Feud is Thomas Berger’s twelfth novel and one of his best. In his previous book, Reinhart’s Women (1981), Berger seemed to be mellowing, giving his hero, Carlo Reinhart, less chaos to deal with than in the previous three Reinhart novels. This tendency continues in The Feud, set in Hornbeck and Millville, somewhere in middle America, during the Depression; the novel recalls the world of Sneaky People (1975) but presents it with more humor. There is a desperation in the lives of these seemingly ordinary people, but it is softer around the edges. Most important, The Feud offers yet more evidence that Berger is a genuinely original novelist. He has said he agrees with Vladimir Nabokov’s contention about Lolita (1955) that what is significant in such a work is “aesthetic bliss.” The Feud provides such bliss.
The troubles in The Feud begin when beer-bellied Dolf Beeler, a plant foreman, decides to revarnish a walnut dresser several years after promising his wife, Bobby, that he would do so immediately. Dolf goes to Bud’s hardware store in neighboring Millville for paint remover (because the store in Hornbeck is closed following its owner’s unexplained suicide), and he gets into an argument with Junior Bullard (Bud’s teenage son) and Reverton Kirby (Bud’s cousin) when he refuses to dispose of his unlit stogie. Rev, who tells his relatives that he is a railroad detective—though actually he is unemployed—pulls a gun on Dolf and humiliates him. When Bud’s store burns down that night, the disagreement between the Bullards and the Beelers becomes a full-scale feud. Numerous other misunderstandings and disasters follow, creating a combination of Romeo and Juliet (1595) and the Hatfields and McCoys.
Bud’s problem is not merely that he has lost his business, but that it was uninsured—unbeknownst to his many relatives, who have invested in the store and who think insurance will pay for the damages. Unable to face them, Bud tries to kill himself and later has a breakdown.
Tony, Dolf’s seventeen-year-old son, has developed a crush on Bud’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Eva, because she has “such a big milk fund.” When he tries to visit her after the fire, Rev pulls his gun again: “This is our town, and we don’t want you in it.” Then someone blows up Dolf’s car.
Dolf, according to his daughter, Bernice, is the kind of man who “took life too seriously and often thought somebody was cheating him or insulting him when probably they never had the least intent to do so.” His natural paranoia, a characteristic he shares with his enemy Rev, intensifies after the bombing. When he goes to work the next day, he picks a fight with kindly Walt Huff, Bud’s brother-in-law, who tries to talk Dolf into making peace with the Bullards. After winning the fight by bloodying Walt’s nose—only one of several bloody noses in The Feud—Dolf has a heart attack. Ironically, the same ambulance that takes Dolf to the hospital carries Bud to the mental ward immediately afterward. As readers of Who Is Teddy Villanova? (1977) are aware, Berger delights in devising such coincidences; thus, it turns out that Dolf’s son Tony had fought Walt’s son the year before.
The Feud quickly develops into what Tony—borrowing from his more literary younger brother, Jack—calls a comedy of errors. Tony knocks out Clive Shell, the Millville police chief, for insulting his mother. Junior Bullard, who believes that he is ultimately to...
(The entire section is 1470 words.)