Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 582
Meeting Evil combines the characters and situations of Killing Time, Neighbors, and The Houseguest (1988) to darkly comic effect. John Felton, married and the father of two, is an unsuccessful real estate salesman in a small community. Like many of Berger’s Everyman protagonists, John is an essentially good person motivated by a sense to do right and to seem considerate of others. His benign tolerance is severely tested when a stranger comes to his door on John’s day off and asks for help in pushing a stalled car. Richie turns out to be John’s complete opposite and the embodiment of a typical civilized American’s worst nightmares.
A much more dangerous version of Harry and Ramona of Neighbors and the visitor in The Houseguest, Richie is a psychopath who sincerely believes that he is not a bad person. Violence just happens to erupt wherever he goes, though he insists that it is the police who commit most crimes. John is unable to break away from Richie as he steals cars, kidnaps other innocents, and carries out more mayhem. John escapes only to be charged with Richie’s crimes. The often hilarious novel’s denouement plays out when John finally returns home to find his wife entertaining Richie, whom she thinks is his client.
Richie’s acts cause John to reevaluate his values, though he corrects himself every time that he feels he is giving in to Richie’s cynical view of human nature. Despite one violent act after another, John remains terrified of being thought rude and is shocked that strangers might be wary of him. More than anything, John wants the unfair views that others take of him because of Richie to stop. Berger suggests that there is a subtle distinction between civilized behavior and the perception of such behavior. John’s civility is sincere yet is an ineffective weapon against the chaos surrounding him.
The ironic relationship between the characters is underscored by Richie’s admiration for the person he considers his only friend. Although Richie, an escapee from a mental institution, constantly mocks John’s bourgeois views, he likes John’s refusal to sway, his insistence upon sticking to his principles in the face of overwhelming reasons to do otherwise. John’s sense of responsibility wavers but never disappears, while Richie accepts no responsibility for his actions. In this world of misconstrued motivations and perverted morality, John’s essential decency is an ineffective weapon. This point becomes even clearer when John goes from being Richie’s victim to being victimized by the foolish police. John comes to realize that what is most important is not how others perceive him but what he thinks of himself. Before he can arrive at this view, he must face what he and Richie have in common, that the criminal represents his darker side.
Berger, as always wanting to keep his reader off-balance, briefly shifts to Richie’s point of view midway through the novel. Richie’s insistence that he lives by a code and that he detests immorality makes his antics even more ironic. Berger follows this interlude with John’s recognition that this extreme situation has brought out previously hidden qualities, an opportunity to make up for earlier failures, an awareness that he has enclosed himself in a “convenient moral armor.” He actually needs a monster such as Richie to goad him into changing his complacent life, to recognize that his life has been as aimless as Richie’s own.
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