(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

It is hard to imagine an odder book than Neighbors. When one is imagined, however, it will probably be imagined—and written—by Thomas Berger. In a career spanning some twenty years, this underrated writer has produced ten novels of remarkable diversity. Whether consciously or not, Berger has written in several distinctive literary genres, and to each new genre he has brought a level of imagination and creativity which seems to expand the boundaries of the genre while at the same time gently satirizing the formulas into which the genre has slipped.

Berger himself has provided an explanation for this. In an interview in The New York Times Book Review he said, “I write for the purpose of providing myself with an alternative to reality.” In his career, Berger has availed himself of such fictional alternatives as the Old West, the days of King Arthur and the hard-boiled detective milieu. Berger is probably best known as the author of a book (Little Big Man) which was made into a film starring Dustin Hoffman. Arguably, Little Big Man is his best book. His other works, however, also merit reading; indeed it may be said that the totality of his literary output to date is as impressive, both quantitatively and qualitatively, as that of almost any active American writer.

Berger brings a strange but acute sensibility to his material. He is a master of the small observation, the subtle nuance, the careful shade of meaning. One must always guard against accepting things at face value, for things are often not what they seem in Berger’s work. His books abound in unexpected shifts of plot and surprising revelations of character; and, so it is with Neighbors.

What an evocative word “neighbors” is: a friendly wave of the hand while mowing the grass, a bit of casual gossip across the back hedge, a borrowed cup of sugar, a trusted watchdog and mail collector during vacations. Yet Thomas Berger has a somewhat different view. Suppose, he must have thought before writing Neighbors, all the amenities, all the polite little dishonesties that lubricate the friction in social relationships were stripped away. Suppose that all of the latent mistrust, aggression, and hostility were allowed to mingle freely and unrestrainedly with the higher impulses that usually direct our actions—thus, Neighbors.

Earl Keese, forty-nine, and his wife Enid live in the country within commuting distance of the city. Their daughter Elaine, who is away at college, is the perfect child who honors her parents and achieves high marks and popularity at school. Earl and Enid have settled into a rather dull and smug middle-class routine. As the book opens they are making small talk about the need to invite the new neighbors over for a drink; and this is where the commonplace ends. The Keeses are soon abruptly introduced to the new neighbors, Harry and Ramona, and for the next twenty-four hours are plunged into the sort of situation comedy that might come from the pen of a “Father Knows Best” scriptwriter while in the grips of a prolonged and very bad acid trip. Events move at such a rapid-fire pace that a plot summary would be nearly the length of the book. A few random occurrences will serve as examples: Earl pushes Harry’s car over an embankment into a creek, Earl and Harry exchange...

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Neighbors Literary Techniques

Keese is clearly intended to be a twentieth-century American Everyman. It is essential to the theme that the other characters not be fully...

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Neighbors Ideas for Group Discussions

Neighbors lends itself easily to comparisons with Kafka and probably will stimulate discussion about the changing tone of American...

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Neighbors Social Concerns

Neighbors is, among other things, a smooth but corrosive satire on bad manners and the lack of neighborliness, or even fundamental...

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Neighbors Literary Precedents

The fiction of Franz Kafka is the most obvious influence on Neighbors, an influence acknowledged by Berger himself. The novel manages...

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Neighbors Related Titles

Neighbors can be seen as one of a trilogy of Berger's satiric novels about modern America's bad manners. The others are Being...

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Neighbors Adaptations

John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd starred in an undistinguished film adaptation released in 1981. Directed by John G. Avildsen, with a screenplay...

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Neighbors Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Barr, Marleen. “Men in Feminist Science Fiction: Marge Piercy, Thomas Berger, and the End of Masculinity.” In Science Fiction Roots and Branches: Contemporary Critical Approaches, edited by Rhys Garnett and R. J. Ellis. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990.

Chapman, Edgar L. “’Seeing’ Invisibility: Or, Invisibility as Metaphor in Thomas Berger’s Being Invisible.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 4 (1992): 65-93.

Landon, Brooks. Thomas Berger. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

Landon, Brooks. “Thomas Berger: Dedicated to the Novel.” World & I 18 (October, 2003): 208-209.


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