Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 575
Berger's economical novel depends mainly on its two chief figures, Richie Maranville, the serial killer who hates bad manners, and the suburban innocent, John Felton. To be sure, Berger's deft narrative often suggests more about his minor characters than the author has time to allot them. Except for Sharon and Tim, a young woman and a boy who barely escape Richie's malice, the other characters are essentially reduced to cameo appearances. For instance, John's wife is brought on stage in the final scenes of the story, and other minor characters have a memorable moment or two.
The most memorable figure in the novel is Richie, who may well be one of the most credible serial killers portrayed in contemporary American fiction. The product of an orphanage and a series of psychiatric clinics, Richie has developed a survivalist's contempt for institutions and social authority. He views the police, the most obvious symbols of social authority, with contempt; but he reserves his greatest ire for the citizens who regularly display incivility to strangers. Equally disgusting to him are the people who practice unthinkingly the daily rituals of social hypocrisy: When a motel manager rents a room with second rate accommodations, Richie responds by urinating on one of the twin beds of his room, and later by murdering a fellow guest, depositing the body in his room and then setting the room on fire. Richie also considers taking punitive action against a waitress who is overweight (she has no discipline and eats too much of the restaurant's food) and who offers the usual banal pleasantries after his meal.
The greatest irony of Richie's character is that Richie kills because of a twisted idealism: Society's lack of attention to its professed ideals and beliefs infuriates him. For the same reason, he conceives and persists in holding an irrational affection for John Felton, whom he perceives as a quixotic idealist who is constantly victimized by the selfishness of strangers. His admiration for John gives Richie a tragic stature, but it ultimately proves his undoing, because Richie's decision to visit John's house and meet his wife and daughter energizes John into a violent defense of his home and family.
By contrast, John, through much of the novel, seems an annoying figure. Unlike the streetwise Sharon, who immediately recognizes Richie's type, John misunderstands Richie's nature for nearly half the book. As a consequence, he is baffled by the reactions of strangers who express hatred and contempt when they meet him, for they mistakenly believe that John is the perpetrator of Richie's crimes. Since most readers will conclude — well ahead of John — that Richie has committed some horrendous acts, they are likely to be impatient with John, who lacks the shrewdness of Berger's Jack Crabb, or even the hard-won wisdom of the mature Reinhart. However, Berger develops the theme of John's innocence so emphatically in order to emphasize basic goodness of heart — and to remind his readers of how logical John's views would be if modern America were a more civil and peaceable kingdom.
In the final sequence of the novel, when John defeats Richie, in order to save his wife and daughter from Richie's potential for malice, Berger demonstrates once again his faith in the potential heroism of the ordinary human. Like the mature Reinhart, the enlightened Fred Wagner and the perceptive Lydia in his later novels, John displays his ability to survive the ordeal of initiation into an awareness of evil.
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