In their island home somewhere off the East Coast, Doug Graves, a philandering attorney, and his wife, Audrey, a secret drinker, are meeting their daughter-in-law, Lydia, for the first time. Lydia and Bobby Graves, both law students, are also becoming acquainted with Chuck Burgoyne, the houseguest, but Bobby’s parents think that Chuck is a friend of the young couple. As it gradually becomes clear that Chuck has invited himself, so does the seemingly perfect houseguest slowly become sinister. One by one, the Graveses turn against the malicious Chuck, but they keep changing their minds, thinking perhaps they have misinterpreted his behavior. Eventually, they unite in their confusion and plot to kill him.
Thomas Berger has explored similar territory in his 1980 novel NEIGHBORS, but the characters and events in THE HOUSEGUEST are less cartoonish. While the Graveses resemble the characters in one of John Cheever’s depictions of middle-class mores, Chuck is an enigma out of a Harold Pinter play, and the events recall those in the 1971 Sam Peckinpah film STRAW DOGS. Berger himself is like Chuck Burgoyne in his manipulation of the reader’s expectations as he reveals how many people cover their violent hostility to those not exactly like themselves with a delicate veneer which they convince themselves is sensitivity. In the world of the Graveses, abuse of hospitality threatens civilization and therefore should be punished by death.
In THE HOUSEGUEST, his fifteenth novel, Berger exhibits the deceptively simple style, comic genius, and insight into modern banality which makes him one of the most original of American novelists.