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 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...
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