Neighbors

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1374

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.

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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 punches and harsh words, Earl and Harry exchange handshakes and warm words, Ramona accuses Earl of rape, Elaine returnes home accused of stealing, Harry makes sexual overtures to Elaine, Ramona seduces Enid and Elaine, Harry fires a shotgun at Earl, a garage owner punches Earl in the stomach, Harry’s house burns to the ground, and on, and on. The madness ends only when Earl suffers a stroke and dies while Ramona says to him, “Earl, it could happen to anybody.”

Most of this strange narrative is concerned with physical action, much of it of the slapstick variety, and Berger chooses a style of writing which is appropriate. In his earlier books, Berger has displayed a variety of styles. Little Big Man purports to be the more or less verbatim transcript of a series of recorded reminiscences by Jack Crabb, an 111-year-old survivor of Wild West days, and Berger there uses an appropriately slangy approach. In Arthur Rex, Berger’s treatment of the King Arthur legend, the storytelling is in the old manner, as in “And so it came to pass in the kingdom of. ...” When Berger ventured into the hard-boiled detective genre in Who Is Teddy Villanova? he chose a style which the book’s dust jacket describes, accurately if a bit rhetorically, as “rococo” and “reminiscent by turns of Thomas DeQuincy, Thomas Babington Macauley and Sir Thomas Malory.” Berger, then, is a writer who knows his craft and who is consistently able to fit his style to his material. Neighbors is no exception. Here, he puts aside stylistic eccentricity in favor of a low-keyed, straightforward narration. As usual his choice is correct. The direct style contributes to the rapid flow of events and avoids the slowdowns of action which authorial excess might have caused.

Despite the apparent directness of the style, however, a caveat is in order. Early in the book the reader is told that Keese, since adolescence, has been unable to “accept the literal witness of his eyes” because “outlandish illusions” appear to him from time to time. “Perhaps a half-dozen times a year he thought he saw such phenomena as George Washington urinating against the wheel of a parked car (actually an old lady bent over a cane) ... a rat of record proportions (an abandoned football)...” and so on. Berger thus sows seeds of doubt which makes the reader leery of what is told. For example, was Ramona really staring avidly at Earl’s crotch? Or, was this an outlandish illusion? So, in addition to the dizzying flow of strange happenings, one must also try to ascertain what, if anything, is real.

For those who relish the exercise of puzzling out the “hidden meanings” in literary works, Neighbors is worth a bit of rumination. What is this book all about anyway? Or, is it simply the work of a skillful and highly imaginative author kicking up his heels a bit? Several possibilities come to mind. At one level the book seems to comment on the ambivalence that is experienced when newcomers move into the neighborhood. Naturally, an effort is made to help them feel welcome and to convey the sort of pride and attachment that people feel for their surroundings. Yet, on the other hand, who are these people? Can they be trusted? Will they let the yard go to seed and the house paint chip away? Are they thieves?

Perhaps the book can be said to be something of an epic test to which the hero, Earl Keese, is subjected. Who are Harry and Ramona? From whence did they come? These questions are not answered for the reader; but it is known that because of Harry and Ramona, Earl sees things as he has not seen them before and does things of which he would not have thought himself capable. Indeed, at the close of the book, Earl has thrown his lot with Harry and Ramona; he has joined them in the car and is prepared to sally forth with them. To where? Earl will not know that because he is felled by a stroke. He died a different man, however, from the Earl who lived in respectable boredom a mere twenty-four hours earlier.

Berger himself has said that the book is a tribute to Franz Kafka “who taught me that at any moment banality might turn sinister, for existence was not meant to be unfailingly genial.” Further, he has described the book as “a bizarre celebration of whatever gift I have, the strangest of all my narratives.” The latter may be the most satisfying explanation. For after all, there is no immutable law that requires every interesting work of fiction to bear its weight in meaning and relevance. Coming from a master of escape genres, Neighbors perhaps is best viewed simply as an escape, a titillating diversion to an imaginative world of experience that some will never know.

Literary Techniques

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Keese is clearly intended to be a twentieth-century American Everyman. It is essential to the theme that the other characters not be fully developed, but rather remain as two-dimensional figures. Harry and Ramona are embodiments of surface good nature and vulgarity; the Greavys are textbook illustrations of contemptuousness; Keese's wife Enid seems blissfully unaware of any social undercurrents; and his daughter Elaine is self-absorbed and enigmatic, at times even appearing to be a fellow conspirator with Harry and Ramona. Berger's earlier novel, Sneaky People (1975), portrayed a small group of Midwesterners who hid their true interests from each other; in Neighbors, since the reader is restricted to Keese's point of view, the effect is like experiencing Sneaky People without being taken into the mind of more than one character.

Berger uses certain surrealistic techniques to heighten the irony of the novel. Not only are many events left ambiguous and enigmatic, but a year's indignities are compressed into the span of one day. To add to the irony, time is mysteriously accelerated, a phenomenon that might be explained by Keese's tense state of mind and impending heart attack. Finally, there is the final ironic appearance of Harry and Ramona as Harry's companions in the ambulance; Zulfiker Ghose, commenting on this point, compares Harry and Ramona to the fabled angels of death.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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Neighbors lends itself easily to comparisons with Kafka and probably will stimulate discussion about the changing tone of American life. An interesting question is whether Earl Keese imagines many of the things that Harry and Ramona do. Another interesting issue is whether, assuming the reality of the insults he perceives, Keese has provoked hostility by his attempt to separate himself from society in a secluded suburban home.

1. What is our view of Earl Keese as a person, apart from his relationship with Harry and Ramona?

2. What major acts of bad manners do Harry and Ramona commit? Since the concept of manners tends to shift with social values, what defines good manners in our time?

3. Why does Earl's wife fail to observe and react to the bad manners of Harry and Ramona?

4. How does the use of the Greavys reinforce the main theme of the destructiveness of bad manners coupled with aggressive invasion of privacy?

5. What incidents help to create its surreal or nightmarish quality?

6. Why does Keese believe his daughter, on her brief visit from college, to be oddly alien, or even an ally of Harry and Ramona?

7. How significant is the curious acceleration of time, which Keese notices more frequently in the later parts of the novel? What is the effect of Keese's perception of time?

8. Is the final sequence, when Harry and Ramona return for Keese, an episode of pure fantasy? Could the final sequence be an effect of Keese's heart attack?

9. Berger has commented that the reader who called Harry and Ramona "angels of death" was surely accurate. In what ways are Harry and Ramona fulfilling the mythic role of "angels of death"?

10. Although Harry and Ramona are indescribably vulgar, they appear in some ways to be more sympathetic than the beleaguered Keese. Why?

Social Concerns

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Neighbors is, among other things, a smooth but corrosive satire on bad manners and the lack of neighborliness, or even fundamental respect for others, in contemporary society. Thomas Berger's dark comedy of manners opens when Harry and Ramona, an obnoxious couple, move in next door to Earl Keese's isolated suburban house, and spend a day and a night imposing themselves in offensive ways on the apparently innocuous and middle-aged Keese. Harry and Ramona are not so much three-dimensional characters as caricatured social monsters, like the grasping and avaricious characters in Ben Jonson's seventeenth century comedies, who often seem to be personified vices. Both Harry and Ramona cheerfully take advantage of Keese's good will through numerous impositions that often masquerade as good fellowship in America. Harry virtually invites his wife and himself to dinner on the first day of their acquaintance, and Keese is shocked to find Ramona naked in his bed at their first meeting.

If Keese is constantly victimized and offended by the shameless couple, he is also subjected to various humiliations by repairmen and service people, all of whom turn out to be the insulting Greavys, father and son. Just as Harry and Ramona represent the kind of impolite aggression one routinely confronts in a society without good manners, so the Greavys in their insolence satirize a social situation where the consumer is at the mercy of those he hires to serve him. Keese's sense of outrage is heightened by his isolation, for neither his wife nor his daughter seem aware of the offenses committed by Harry and Ramona. Clearly, the novel is a portrait of Keese as a contemporary American Everyman: a beleaguered loner, harassed by social forces completely beyond his control.

Literary Precedents

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The fiction of Franz Kafka is the most obvious influence on Neighbors, an influence acknowledged by Berger himself. The novel manages to capture the surrealistic or nightmarish tone of a Kafka story, which begins in an apparently realistic situation and moves to the farther reaches of the fantastic. Some other influences have already been suggested: the Tolstoy story, "The Death of Ivan Ilych," and the work of European absurdists and existentialists like Samuel Beckett, Eugene Lonesco, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. The dark fables of Kurt Vonnegut, like Slaughterhouse-Five (1969; see separate entry), may be another precedent; but the darker side of Berger's own earlier novels—especially Crazy in Berlin (1958) and Who Is Teddy Villanova? (1977)—is probably equally significant as a literary precedent.

Adaptations

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John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd starred in an undistinguished film adaptation released in 1981. Directed by John G. Avildsen, with a screenplay by Larry Gelbart, this film attempted to capitalize on the novel's critical and popular success by developing it as a vehicle for the popular Belushi and Aykroyd,. The female leads were Cathy Moriarity and Kathryn Walker, neither of whom made much of an impact.

The film's chances of success were seriously hampered by the miscasting of Belushi as Keese and Aykroyd as Vic (the Harry of the novel). Although the intention may have been to impose control on Belushi's manic style and to prove that he was capable of playing a victim, the casting simply does not work: Belushi is too controlled and also not very believable as a middle-aged conformist, and Aykroyd lacks the demonic energy his role requires.

Neither the script nor the direction provides much help. Gelbart's script is indebted to the novel for its best scenes and effects and seems otherwise uninspired. The direction by Avildsen is flatfooted and fails to establish the rapid pace or the proper balance needed for a film that teeters between reality and nightmare.

Bibliography

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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.

Landon, Brooks. “Thomas Berger’s Arthur Rex.” In King Arthur Through the Ages, edited by Valerie M. Lagorio and Mildred Leake Day. New York: Garland, 1990.

Sinowitz, Michael Leigh. “The Western as Postmodern Satiric History: Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man.” Clio 28 (Winter, 1999): 129-148.

Stypes, Aaron. “Thomas Berger and Sheer Incongruity.” South Dakota Review 32 (Winter, 1994): 34-43.

Wallace, Jon. “A Murderous Clarity: A Reading of Thomas Berger’s Killing Time.” Philological Quarterly 68 (Winter, 1989): 101-114.

Zimmerman, Brett. “The Linguistic Key to Crabb’s Veracity: Berger’s Little Big Man Revisited.” Western American Literature 38 (Fall, 2003): 270-288.

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