Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1765
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 and absence of moral concern since it is Ramona who takes an uninvited bath in Keese's house, then naked under a bath towel, drapes herself on Keese's bed to waylay him.
Ramona is to some extent a female version of Harry's brash rudeness; but her behavior seems even more irrationally shameless than his, at least from the point of view of traditional moral standards. Although she has had no opportunity to get acquainted, she has the effrontery to wait in the nude for Keese in his own bedroom. Such an act of "neighborly friendliness" becomes an ironic parody of traditional neighborly civility. After he rejects her obvious invitation to have a few moments of meaningless sex, Ramona later denounces Keese to his wife, claiming that he tried to rape her. Yet even fully clothed, Ramona remains a sexual aggressor, later surprising Keese when he steps nakedly out of his basement shower. Keese's response to Ramona is indignation and shock; indeed, he quickly decides that she must be insane. However, his reaction seems to be a blend of anger over Ramona's lapse of decorum and revulsion because of her feminine aggression. Whatever the truth about her sanity, Ramona's actions are essentially shameless, for despite her advances to Keese, she ingratiates herself into the confidence of Keese's wife, Enid, and has some success at turning Enid against him. Moreover, Ramona has an annoying ability to use Baby, her wolfhound, as a prop in her games.
By contrast, Enid, who has long been a passive and uncomplaining wife, is depicted as a source of exasperation for Keese because of her reactions to the offensive neighbors. Whereas Keese wants her to be a psychological ally, she seems more concerned about Keese's irrational actions and the possibility that he will embarrass them. At best, Keese can only view her as an uncomprehending and innocent victim of their crass neighbors. Enid's obsession with observing the proprieties seems to be as great as Keese's own; she also appears to be concerned to protect her new neighbors (whom she admits she does not like) from angry outbursts by Keese.
Enid is portrayed as a somewhat ambiguous character, so that the reader must ask whether she is merely lacking in perception, or whether she clings to social decorum as a protection against the fears and uncertainties of confronting a world without courtesy and good manners, a society where, as Keese says, "chance encounters can be brutal." In fact, late in the story she confesses that Harry and Ramona frighten her and this is the main reason for her cooperation with them. Although Enid may seem merely obtuse, Keese finds her unpredictable and frequently fears that she has become fellow conspirator with the objectionable Harry and Ramona.
Similarly, Keese is uncertain of the responses of his daughter Elaine, who makes an unexpected appearance in the middle of the novel. As a student home from college for the weekend, she seems even more than Enid to be a mischievous co-conspirator with Harry and Ramona. Fueled by youthful energy, Elaine's actions suggest to her father that she shares some demonic secret with his tormentors. In fact, Keese has idolized her and overlooked her faults. To be sure, Elaine finds Keese to be an overly protective father; although he does not want her to drink, he finds that she carries a small bottle of vodka in her purse, which she shares with Harry, and tries to share with her mother.
Nevertheless, Elaine is not exactly playing a game like that of Harry and Ramona (their guiding principle seems to be the attempt to be deliberately outrageous and unpredictable). When Harry oversteps the bounds of hospitality by placing his hand on her back and then touching her hip, Elaine does nothing; but after Keese hits Harry she praises Keese and calls him a "hero." Elaine is also presented ambiguously: Her mother assures Keese that Elaine has been expelled for stealing a ring at the dean's house; but at the novel's end, she has decided to return to school. Was the ring actually stolen by a friend, as she tells Keese, or is she going back to return the ring herself? Moreover, Elaine seems genuinely fascinated by Harry when he is present, and she also seems to be adopting Ramona as a role model. Yet when Harry and Ramona leave for good, after their house burns (although it is revealed that they did not really own the house), both Elaine and her mother claim that their behavior during the weekend was a pretense assumed because of their fear of Harry and Ramona. One must conclude that Elaine has a streak of perversity—including the inability to explain her acts directly—which makes Harry and Ramona attractive to her.
Perhaps the key to understanding Elaine is to realize that she has a secret agenda, since she may be planning to drop out of the university without telling her father. But the sensible reader will see Elaine not as the demonic conspirator Keese imagines her to be, but as a fairly typical adolescent female student, dominated by the egotism of youth and pursuing her private schemes without informing her parents.
Similarly, the Greavys, the father and son who are handymen engaged by Keese, both appear to be the same maddening person, and their erratic service visits seem to be conceived with the object of increasing Keese's frustration. They become understandably hostile after Harry plays the joke on Keese of having the elder Greavy haul Keese's car in for inspection, although there is nothing wrong with the vehicle. Although they are masters at offering the studied insolence of service people, their actions are understandable to a knowledgeable reader. However, the reader may sympathize with Keese in his resentment of their habitual contempt toward their customers. The elder Greavy avenges himself on what he considers Keese's arrogance by hitting Keese in the stomach, and he apparently puts "Pimp" in whitewash on Keese's car, after discovering that he has had to haul it in and inspect it for no clear reason.
In short, the behavior of the other characters, although often bizarre, remains somewhat consistent with the demands of fictional realism, except for the final sequence when the dying Keese dreams that Harry and Ramona have returned for him. It is the peculiar perspective of Keese's point of view that allows the reader to perceive Harry and Ramona as demons perfecting the practice of rudeness and the other characters as fellow conspirators in the Kafkaesque world created by Keese's bitterness and incipient paranoia.
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