Berger, Thomas (Vol. 3)

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Berger, Thomas 1924–

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Berger is an American novelist, best known for Little Big Man. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Berger's books—Crazy in Berlin, Reinhart in Love, Little Big Man—are wild comedy, but they are not the facile, anything-goes surrealism of the black humorists. Neither are they satires, or polemics, or politically motivated gripes. They are funny in the way Don Quixote or Rabelais is funny—the laughter of a wise humanist, experiencing the world in all its absurdity; tolerant, pleased, saddened—and involved. The glory of Little Big Man lies in the way Berger imposes his comic view of life on a deadly accurate portrait of the Old West. I know from conversations with him that he researched the period as thoroughly as any historian, that his outlandish Cheyennes and their hilarious locutions are based on actual recorded testimony of Indian warriors. It is the truest kind of humor, a humor that derives from real situations and real people. Who can resist Berger's Cheyennes, who refer to themselves haughtily as "The Human Beings"? Or his description of the way an Indian camp smells? Or the Indians' disdain for time, schedules, anything continuous—a trait which causes them to hate the railroad?

Gerald Green, "Back to Bigger," in Proletarian Writers of the Thirties, edited by David Madden (© 1968 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968, pp. 26-45.

Berger's settings and characters in all his novels are plausible rather than apocalyptic. His satire refuses to make an alliance between reader and author against an oppressive, ugly "them." Paul Krassner once wrote that "the ultimate object of satire is its own audience," and Berger's integrity arranges that no reader—male chauvinist, militant feminist or in between—can emerge from "Regiment of Women" unscathed. All of Berger's main characters … are moved more by circumstances than by some passionate belief or lack of belief. Berger's clearest outrage is reserved for anyone who presumes to sit in moral judgment on another, and his central characters are all slammed about by beings more certain than they about the location of truth….

Like all great literary satirists, whose art gets at the root of imperception and self-delusion, Berger is concerned with the way language can falsify reality. ("I was never an aggressive boy," says Georgie. "I certainly don't think I could be called effeminate.") By disorienting us through its language, "Regiment of Women" indicts the society that uses language as a tool of oppression, making purely verbal differences into codes and categories—rhetoric asserting and experiencing itself as truth.

Berger's own style, with its tendency to absorb the speech rhythms of his characters and its unwillingness to stand apart from them, is especially suited for such themes. Since "Little Big Man," especially, he has concentrated on exploring the possibilities and revealing the secrets of everyday language with a deep wit and feeling that transforms our awareness of the language we really use much more than does the flamboyance of a writer bent on asserting his personal style. "Killing Time" may be Berger's most brilliant effort to engage in this most truly poetic task of renovating the language we speak. But "Regiment of Women" is a brilliant flame from the same sources of energy….

"Regiment of Women" is a brilliant accomplishment by one of our best novelists. "Little Big Man," and perhaps "Killing Time" and "Vital Parts," are among the best novels of the past 10 years. Next to these larger achievements, "Regiment of Women," may be more a fable, a deceptively simple romp through current prejudices. It isn't great in the way greatness has been defined by the novel since Joyce: each one a block-buster...

(The entire section contains 1861 words.)

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Berger, Thomas (Vol. 5)