Berger, Thomas (Vol. 8)

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Berger, Thomas 1924–

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American novelist, playwright, editor, and short story writer, Berger has had a steady output of novels since the publication of Crazy in Berlin in 1958. Little Big Man, a mock-heroic parody of the Old West and probably his best known novel, was made into a successful motion picture. In recent fiction, notably Regiment of Women and Who Is Teddy Villanova?, Berger has continued to write in the comic-satiric vein that is gaining him increasing recognition. The latter is an excellent burlesque of the conventional detective novel. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

[Surely Thomas Berger] should sign his novels Tom Berger by this time, if only as a hint to the reviewers, who can't make head or tail of him, that he really is a good guy. Berger's trouble with the critics is that he cannot keep a straight face, no matter what he's writing about. He has insulted history (Crazy in Berlin), all of Cincinnati (Reinhart in Love), and Custer's Last Stand (Little Big Man). [In Killing Time] he goes for what has always had its share of the licks in his novels, The American Mind, an organism that Mr. Berger can isolate, apparently by powers miraculous, and see with unbefuddled gaze…. The American mind is lonely, unintegrated, antisocial, other-directed, is poor in group-motivated direction, vocaliter nauseolissimo. It needs, of course, well, you know, it needs … but never mind.

Gentlemen, meet Lee Harvey Oswald. Meet a thoroughly lethal idealistic cry baby, spawn of America. He is, when he is upper-middle-class, straight and clean, and named Whitman, the very pride of America. A bit down the social scale, and named Speck, he is still 100 per cent American…. [He] is a sweet, gentle Mama's boy, and it's worth the price of the novel to meet Mama, as goofy a woman as ever George Price drew or showed you the secret of a whiter wash on TV…. A jury of middle-aged American mothers would probably find him their ideal of a son: he is so pure he wishes he were sexless (dear boy!); his heart is tender toward the lame and blind and helpless. He is, in short, that inexplicable schmuck, The American Murderer. (pp. 1282-83)

This is not a roman à clef but a roman à crochet: practically any key will fit. The police, lawyers, families of the deceased: all are examples of the drifting mind Mr. Berger has undertaken to study….

[Mr. Berger] is … the best satirist in the United States, the most learned scientist of the vulgar, the futile, and the lost, and the most accurate mimic in the trade. Behind the very prose in which he has cast this novel one can detect the wad of gum and the tabloid reporter's prurient glint of depraved genius for the sickening, satisfying detail that sells newspapers. None of Mr. Berger's other novels is written in such lunch-counter prose; he has invented it for Killing Time alone….

But one must not imagine that Mr. Berger is merely a diligent camera. Detweiler is one of the most complex characters in modern fiction, the first outrageously impenetrable character in a gallery of outrageous characters…. Some graduate student with half a mind will soon write him up for the English journals as a Christ Figure. He smells of Dostoyevsky and Mary Baker Eddy. He is part Quaker, part Rasputin. The eeriest thing about him is that he is wholly believable, which is to say, of course, that Thomas Berger is a magnificent novelist. (p. 1283)

Guy Davenport, in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1967; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), November 14, 1967.

Sneaky People … is a novel laid in small-town Midwestern America in the mid-1930s. Yet it is written with the altered sensibilities and in the style of the mid-Seventies, a style which permits a degree of license on the printed page that would have been inconceivable in a novel written about the mid-Thirties in the mid-Thirties....

(The entire section contains 2178 words.)

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Berger, Thomas (Vol. 5)