Meeting Evil

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 482

Weary of being read as a literary comedian, Thomas Berger has written his most blackly humorous fiction—no mean achievement, given his version of the history of the American West in LITTLE BIG MAN and his retelling of the Orestes myth in ORRIE’S STORY. In MEETING EVIL, humor and horror are inextricably bound to each other in much the same way that the two main characters, strangers at first, become by novel’s end brothers of a sort in a deadly, and deadly funny, game of sibling rivalry. Hapless and helpless, John Felton, husband and father of two young children, is perfectly cast for the role of fall guy. A real estate salesman trapped in a slumping market, John is respectable, responsible, rational, principled, and kind, and so of course ready to help the stranger who rings his doorbell one fateful Monday morning, needing a push to start his car. John may be ready, but he is hardly prepared—not for someone like Richie, who will do more than just test John’s trust, tolerance, and capacity for putting the best face on even the worst situations. The push will lead to a ride and eventually a day-long spree of escalating mayhem and murder.

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Richie seems a character out of hell by way of Joseph Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS, Norman Mailer’s EXECUTIONER’S SONG, Truman Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD, John Cheever’s BULLET PARK, and Berger’s NEIGHBORS and THE FEUD, inserted into a story that follows the inexorable logic of Kafka’s THE TRIAL but written in a deadpan style that mimics perfectly John’s inadequate sense of propriety and, in the shortest of its three parts, Richie’s no less detached, indeed surprisingly similar way of rationalizing his own violent acts. As the novel progresses through a succession of increasingly inevitable and shockingly funny accidents, the language begins to seem less and less adequate to the task at hand, of comprehending (to say nothing of apprehending) Richie. It is precisely this deliberate failing that makes this brilliant novel so funny in its first half and so unnerving in the second. Whatever the causes of his psychopathology—he was sexually abused as a boy and warehoused in a succession of foster homes and later reform schools, prisons, finally a psychiatric hospital—the fact is that Richie is evil. And John’s relation to that evil is not, as he tries to maintain for too long, that of Good Samaritan, passerby, or innocent bystander but accomplice and eventually executioner.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVIII, April 1, 1992, p. 1411.

Boston Globe. June 21, 1992, p. 108.

Chicago Tribune. July 12, 1992, XIV, p. 6.

Kirkus Reviews. LX, April 1, 1992, p. 408.

Library Journal. CXVII, May 1, 1992, p. 114.

Los Angeles Times. June 15, 1992, p. E5.

New York Times Book Review. July 12, 1992, p. 7.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, April 6, 1992, p. 49.

San Francisco Chronicle. July 19, 1992, p. REV4.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, June 14, 1992, p. 6.

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