Neighbors Characters
by Thomas Berger

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Neighbors Characters

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The cast of Neighbors is stringently limited, as perhaps befits a comedy of bad manners. The cast consists of Earl Keese, his wife Enid, his daughter Elaine, Harry, Ramona, Baby, their wolfhound, and the seemingly interchangeable Greavys, who are in reality father and son. To be sure, a few friends of Keese and Enid are mentioned and Keese does talk to some of them on the telephone, but they are essentially bit-players.

Since the novel describes the stresses and heightened intensity of the last day of Keese's life, all the characters are seen through his highly emotional and paranoid point of view. Keese is in fact a man about to have a heart attack, mainly because his mind and body are stressed to the breaking point. (However, Keese acknowledges to himself that he had felt that his life was essentially over as he had accepted an existence of inertia when he had reached the age of forty-five a few years before.) As a result, Keese's view of Harry and Ramona's actions is charged with suspicion about their actions and skepticism about their explanations. In essence, Keese seems to be projecting on the rude Harry and Ramona the stored up resentments of a lifetime of anger over a society that treats individual sensitivities with contempt. Thus the events of the novel frequently seem hallucinatory to the thoughtful reader, although he or she may conclude that there are rational explanations for the actions of Harry, Ramona, and the Greavys, rather than the ones generated by Keese's sense of persecution.

Restricting the narrative point of view to Keese's consciousness allows Berger to present sharply delineated characters who attain the hard outlines of satirical caricatures. At times, Harry, Ramona, and the Greavys seem less credible as realistically drawn characters than Keese's vision of them: For him, they are malignant demons sent from some mysterious realm to bedevil him.

Keese, an overweight and sedentary middle-aged suburbanite, has a passion for correct form and for controlling his life and his environment. As a result, he is peculiarly suited to be a victim of Harry's and Ramona's aggressive and shameless behavior. Not only has Keese purchased a house at the end of a lonely suburban street (which ends in a cul de sac), but he resents unexpected changes and would like to have control over the choice of which neighbors will live in the only nearby house. Unfortunately, Harry and Ramona bring into Keese's life the crass behavior and annoying lack of consideration that Keese despises in everyday social life. Although readers probably sympathize with Keese's reactions to their vulgarity, they may find his insistence on controlling events somewhat fatiguing, as it is for Keese himself. However, at the end of the novel, Keese becomes a more human and sympathetic protagonist, for he acknowledges that Harry and Ramona are "free spirits" and "the world would be a worse place without them."

By contrast with Keese, Harry is a presumptuous and gregarious back slapper, who tries to become friendly with Keese even before they have been properly introduced. No action seems too outrageous for Harry, as long as it is performed in the name of good fellowship. Not only does Harry invite himself into Keese's house without approval, but he also promotes a dinner invitation for himself and Ramona. Moreover, he orders the food he wants after pawing through Keese's private papers in a desk, even commenting on the smallness of Keese's bank balance. One of his crowning insults is to claim forthrightly that Keese made homosexual overtures to him.

Yet part of the irony of the novel is that it is Harry who seems to be a primary victim of Keese's exasperation. It is Keese who pushes Harry's car into the swamp at the rear of the house, and later Keese, who locks both Harry and Ramona in the game room in his basement, in an effort to end their aggressive assault on his sense of decorum. Moreover, Harry must be considered a victim of his wife's sexual aggressiveness...

(The entire section is 1,765 words.)