Meeting Evil

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2024

Nearly if less mythically as private as Thomas Pynchon, but far more prolific and accessible, Thomas Berger has spent the past thirty-four years publishing an astonishing array of novels: the picaresque Reinhart series; parodies of detective fiction (Who Is Teddy Villanova, 1977) and of Arthurian romance (Arthur Rex: A Legendary Novel, 1978); futuristic satire (Regiment of Women, 1973); and retellings of the Oresteia (Orrie’s Story, 1990) and American history (Little Big Man, 1964, perhaps his best and certainly his most important work). Berger’s keen and generally sardonic interest in madness and violence (in Little Big Man and especially Killing Time, 1967) and in American family life in some of its most bizarre manifestations (Sneaky People, 1975; Neighbors, 1980; and Orrie’s Story) are once again in the forefront in Meeting Evil, his eighteenth novel and latest proof that the quietly innovative and wickedly satirical Berger deserves far more critical attention than he has received thus far. Critics and even reviewers seem wary of a writer nearly as prolific as Joyce Carol Oates and as offbeat as Stanley Elkin, as if this combination along with Berger’s novelistic virtuosity makes him strangely suspect. In addition, there are the risks that Berger takes. In Meeting Evil, for example, the plot is at once banal and horrific, and the characters conventionally realistic yet strangely, eerily cartoonish, lightly sketched against a backdrop that seems, despite the mention of specific place names, oddly blank. The novel’s world is, then, both familiar and strange, and what is worse—and better—this strangeness seems to exist on some as yet uncharted border separating the stark realism of an Edward Hopper from the surreal geometry of a Giorgio de Chirico (as opposed to the more typically surreal fluid grotesqueries of a Salvador Dalí or a Max Ernst).

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Reading like some macabre (and therefore welcome) retelling of Frank Capra’s kitsch film classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Meeting Evil begins by limiting its main character in terms that are at once specific yet oddly attenuated, and in a voice that is clearly focused yet disconcertingly detached, sardonically deadpan:

Perhaps John Felton had got married too young, but he really did love Joanie and, besides, she was pregnant and came from a family which, though believing abortion was wrong, would have been disgraced by an illegitimate birth, with several of its members active in local church affairs and one in the politics of the county. So he became a father the first time almost simultaneously with becoming a husband.

John is clearly if ironically a good man, but he is also a passive man. He is willing enough to stay home on Mondays (his one day off) with the kids so that Joanie can get out of the house, but he is also pathetic enough to ask rhetorically whether he should prepare his “specialty,” spaghetti and canned clam sauce. Amiable and charitable to a fault, he seems literally and therefore comically unable to think negatively about anyone, and that leaves him woefully unprepared for meeting evil one Monday morning in the person of Richie, the stranger who rings the bell at John’s house and asks for a push to start his car. Ever the Good Samaritan, John obliges. Soon, however, kindness takes a wrong turn. Polite at first, the stranger turns hectoring, even nasty. Once the car begins to roll, John discovers that his shirt is caught in the driver’s door, and he is forced to run alongside until he finally gains Richie’s attention—by grasping him by the throat.

That crisis over, John’s anger turns into guilt; instead of returning to Joanie, he accompanies Richie to town to find a service station. Once there, he decides to walk home, only to find that the knee he bumped pushing the car makes that impossible. He enters a taxi office, but the dispatcher will not get a cab for anyone who looks the way John does—unshaven, carelessly dressed—unless he pays in advance. This John cannot do, having left his house without his wallet. John, however, cannot remain angry. Leaving the office, he watches as Richie’s car is struck by another, driven by a woman who, having only a driver’s permit, pleads with John to tell the police that he was in the car with her. John, ever the law-abiding citizen, is unwilling to do this, but even before he can decide firmly against making the leap from Good Samaritan to white knight, rescuing the damsel (actually a cocktail waitress named Sharon) in distress, Richie shows up to say that he was in the car. Satisfied, the police officer drives off—at which point everyone realizes that Richie’s car has been stolen. John and Sharon are dismayed, but Richie seems unperturbed, more interested in buying doughnuts (with Sharon’s money) than in contacting the police. Sitting in the passenger’s seat, Richie then offers to have John drive Sharon home. All of this occurs in the first twenty pages, the prelude as it were to the crime spree to come, one that follows the same inexorable logic as a Keystone Kops comedy.

A high-speed game of tag with a truck ends with Richie running the driver down, presumably—even plausibly—to save John’s life. Hoping that the driver is still alive, John demands that Richie take him to a phone. Richie complies: He stops at a house and breaks in. While Richie helps himself to a bottle of liquor, John tries to phone for help only to find himself in a three-way conversation as funny and as futile as anything in Joseph Heller. He never does reach help, though he does manage inadvertently to terrorize the old woman, upstairs and unseen, who owns the house. Still looking for help, John arrives at the home of the very person to whom he and the old woman had been talking. John manages to disarm the irate “gentleman farmer,” but, not knowing how to unload it, walks off with the man’s expensive shotgun under his arm. The young boy, Tim, whom John next asks for help is a bit suspicious of this scruffy man holding a loaded shotgun asking to come inside to use the phone to call his wife because his car—nowhere to be seen—has broken down. To prevent the boy from calling the police, John cuts the phone lines. At that point Richie and Sharon, now clearly Richie’s hostage, drive up, just in time for Richie to terrorize Tim, threatening to abuse the boy sexually and burn the house down.

What makes this bizarre sequence of increasingly violent events funny is not only their comic logic but also, and more important, John’s perfect haplessness and helplessness, the inadequacy of his good intentions and his panic and paralysis in the face of evil, which is the face of Richie with its “trademark grin.” Most of all, the humor derives from the way in which the narrator mimics so perfectly John’s inability to put any but the best face on even the worst situations. Two hours into his wayward odyssey, John convinces himself that he still can make it home in time for Joanie’s one o’clock appointment at the hairdresser “if nothing happened that was untoward.” A little later, when Richie says that “they” should get rid of Sharon, John keeps himself from drawing the “cynical conclusion” that “it was inevitably, necessarily foolish, let alone hazardous, to be kind to strangers.” The best John can do to dispel the fears of Tim, who wisely has drawn just such a conclusion about him, is to say by way of explanation, “I’ve just had some bad breaks today, that’s all.” He thus echoes, as elsewhere in the novel, the equally hapless and similarly persistent Joseph K. in Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1937), who can offer no better proof of his identity and innocence than his bicycle license. Recognition does come, although slowly, even to someone as pathologically genial as John Felton: He “could no longer regard Richie as being merely an oddball with whom he felt uncomfortable.”

Richie’s thinking follows a similarly perverse logic. Learning that John is thinking of buying a house in the country, Richie advises against it, saying that the country is too isolated and dangerous. After all, he reasons, “Somebody like us might show up.” In the second and shortest of the novel’s three parts, the focus shifts from John to Richie (the two have now briefly separated) and as a result the comedy turns darker and more troubling. “People who acted properly,” Richie thinks to himself, “had nothing to fear” from him, hardly a reassuring thought coming as it does from a sociopath on a short fuse who one moment beats a man’s head in and the next orders dinner. The product of various foster homes, childhood sexual abuse, juvenile and adult correctional facilities, and most recently Barnes Psychiatric Hospital, from which he was released that very morning, Richie is at best “basically feckless” and at worst psychotic. He is, in short, John’s opposite, but he is also John’s double, his secret sharer, the one who, like Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz in Heart of Darkness (1902), enacts what others only desire, especially freedom and revenge. For all of his self-absorption, Richie understands John rather well: “One minute you’re a regular guy, husband and father, and next you’re thinking like a bandit, John. This stuff agrees with you!” Richie actually admires, even envies, John, who has what Richie has never had and never will: principles and a family worth fighting for. (In this, Richie is not entirely on the mark.) Richie wants to protect John and be protected by him, to be his friend, neighbor, and brother. He is not altogether wrong in his answer to John’s question, “What are you?” Richie responds, “a human being.” Neither, however, is he altogether right.

At the end of part 1 the two men part company. In part 3 they are back together again, Richie having lied his way into John’s home and life a second time. Joanie, believing him to be an important client, does everything she can to keep him entertained until her husband returns. Once back, John does everything he can to make Richie leave, all—as usual—to no avail, as Joanie plies their guest with drinks, dinner, dessert, and very nearly a room for the night. Berger’s pacing here, as throughout the novel, is perfect: as slow and drawn out in part 3 as the events of part 1 were frenetically successive. John still does not quite know what to do with Richie. Having played the parts of Good Samaritan, passerby, innocent bystander, witness, and accomplice as well as straight man and fall guy, he now thinks he can just let Richie go his own way while he returns to his more familiar roles of husband, father, and real estate agent. When Richie goes into a convenience store, picks up some beer, and instead of paying for it shoots the cashier, John at long last does act: He becomes Richie’s executioner. Read narrowly, Meeting Evil seems to echo the conservative Reagan-Bush approach to crime and other social ills. “I don’t care what troubles you’ve had,” John tells Richie early in part 3. “They’re not my fault.” Read more broadly, Meeting Evil implies a certain complicity on John’s part, a certain duplicity on Berger’s. This is after all a novel that manages to be both raucously funny and truly disturbing, combining as it does Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966) and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (1979) on one hand and the comedy of Laurel and Hardy on the other.

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.

Literary Techniques

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 205

Berger employs a very spare and economical narrative style and technique in Meeting Evil. The effect attained is that of a fast moving suspense or crime story, which also carries something of the moral weight of a fable. Moreover, the time sequence is restricted to a single day in John Felton's life, although it is a span of time which decisively changes his views and moral character forever.

One effective device, however, is Berger's use of a significant shift in point of view. For much of the narrative, he restricts the narrative point of view to that of the innocent John; but for one crucial sequence, his readers are given the opportunity to see events from Richie's point of view. This sequence may increase sympathy for Richie, but it also tends to shield the reader from graphic descriptions of the horror of Richie's actions, Richie's callous murder of a stranger at the motel, for instance, is a grisly action; but Richie pays little attention to the resultant gore, and thus the reader is spared a vivid description of the act. As a result, readers are shielded from the concrete results of Richie's violence, but they are allowed to contemplate Richie's actions as abstract destructive actions.

Social Concerns

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 340

One of the obvious concerns of Meeting Evil is the novel's attempt to deal with the apparently random violence that has afflicted American society in the 1980s and 1990s. In the novel, John Felton, a young married man and real estate agent, naively helps a man who stops at his house and requests a push for his car. When John accompanies Richie to a gas station and becomes embroiled in a series of bizarre incidents, he finally comes to realize that he has become entangled with a serial killer.

Another social interest of the novel is Berger's attempt to explore the character and effect on a community of a serial killer on a spree. Richie Maranville, the murderer, seems at first an innocuous and almost anonymous figure, yet he is eventually revealed as a murderer who has cut the throats of two women because of trivial provocations, and is clearly an explosive menace ready to kill anyone who strikes him as morally slack or lacking in manners.

The portrait of Richie, which is drawn with irony and restraint, is developed with a deliberate lack of melodrama and sensationalism. At times, Richie seems far more sympathetic than his victims or the police and citizens who react to his crimes. Yet Richie's actions and bizarre reasoning can be viewed as thoroughly credible, given his premises and estrangement from the normal concerns of human life.

Another element of social criticism in the novel is the essential innocence and naivete of Berger's hero, John Felton: John fails to perceive that Richie is dangerous for much of the book, and even when realization dawns, he has difficulty recognizing that Richie is a killer, rather than merely an eccentric stranger. Yet John, who is lauded as a hero for actions taken on the basis of common sense and the need to survive, does rise to a heroic level in the final scenes of the novel, when he saves his wife and daughter from Maranville after the latter has come to the Felton home on a whim.

Literary Precedents

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 336

Aside from Berger's own earlier novels, some of which foreshadow Meeting Evil, the book has obvious precursors in sophisticated popular fiction about violence and, in particular, serial killers. Just as Berger's earlier novel Killing Time was influenced by the sudden prominence of an actual murderer, so Meeting Evil is undoubtedly in part a response to the increasing fascination with serial killers on the part of electronic journalism and print reporters. The novel is also probably obliquely influenced by the popularity of such novels as Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs (1987; please see separate entry) and the films made from them. Berger may also have been responding to the popularity of Elmore Leonard's crime novels.

However, there are strong contrasts between Berger's work and these authors. In contrast to Thomas Harris's Gothic serial killers, Berger's Richie Maranville is not a bizarre and conscienceless monster; and while Leonard's killers may seem a more credible lot, there is a major difference between them and Berger's character. Both Leonard's criminals and Berger's killer seem indifferent to publicity and fame. But whereas Leonard's pair of killers in such a fine novel like Killshot (1989) are essentially small-time crooks who lack moral idealism and merely look for a good time or an opportunity to make a major score in robbery, Berger's Richie is a twisted idealist, who punishes people for lack of courtesy or discipline. Both Leonard and Berger tend to avoid elaborate neo-Freudian explanations for the destructiveness of their characters, nor do they turn to the currently fashionable obsession with child abuse.

Instead of popular literature, however, Berger's novels tend to be deeply rooted in literary tradition. Behind many of his novels is the American literary tradition of the realistic depiction of violence, especially the work of Hemingway and Faulkner and such writers as Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain. Most of Berger's novels also seem to show the influence of Kafka and other modernist fabulists whose fiction deals with the heightened perceptions and state-of-mind created by a period of crisis.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 59

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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