Introduction

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Berger, Thomas 1924–

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An American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and editor, Berger is best known for his satiric caricatures of American life. He deals often with paradox, exploring man's struggle with absurdity, America's myths, and the deceptiveness of modern society. Fantasy, hyperbole, attention to detail, and a love of language are important elements in Berger's style. Little Big Man is generally considered his best work. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Leonard Michaels

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Thomas Berger's fifth novel ["Who Is Teddy Villanova?"] is mainly a parody of detective thrillers; his well-known "Little Big Man" was a parody of Westerns. According to the jacket copy, in "Who Is Teddy Villanova?" we will recognize the familiar "seedy office," "down-at-the-heels shamus," "procession of sinister, chicane, or merely brutal men and scheming, vicious, but lovely women" and a "sequence of savage beatings." All this is true. The novel contains much that is conventional in detective thrillers. Still, one needn't know the books of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler in order to appreciate Berger's witty burlesque of their characters and situations.

Berger's style, which is one of the great pleasures of the book, is something like S. J. Perelman's—educated, complicated, graceful, silly, destructive in spirit, and brilliant—and it is also something like Mad Comics—densely, sensuously detailed, unpredictable, packed with gags. Beyond all this, it makes an impression of scholarship—that is, Berger seems really to know what he jokes about. This includes not only Hammett and Chandler, but also Racine, Goethe, Ruskin, Elias Canetti, New York and the way its residents behave. Essentially, then, Berger's style is like itself insofar as it is like other styles. And his whole novel—in its wide ranging reference to cultural forms both high and pop—is like a huge verbal mirror. Its reflections are similar to what we see in much contemporary literature—hilarious and serious at once. (p. 1)

On some occasions in the novel, the vulgar material slightly overwhelms Berger's wit, but this is inevitable. The book deals with certain well-known and oppressive banalities; now and then it must descend to mere seriousness.

Before looking at a particular instance, it should be said that Berger's detective hustles about Manhattan from one highly offensive personal experience to another, and this is a little reminiscent of the plot of another novel, Saul Bellow's "detective novel," "Mr. Sammler's Planet." Mr. Sammler, like Berger's detective Russel Wren, is a literate anachronism, a hero who reads books and, by his very nature, too much suffers the life of the mind. (p. 25)

Both novelists also notice murderous violence, Manhattan's dog-zoo of excremental streets, ubiquitous and matter-of-fact sexual perversity, and other features in the gruesome apocalypse of New York. Naturally both novelists make their theme the staggering insufficiency of an educated intelligence to such modern circumstances. Berger's detective, while investigating the mystery in this novel, stops to analyze events and clues. He is meticulous and exceedingly logical. As a result, he never understands anything until, at last, everything is merely explained to him by the master criminal who then blithely gets away….

As for the mystery itself—the thing this book is about—it seems to lie exactly in Russel Wren's own literary head, his only office, the place where he lives and works. It is a place full of words, but it can neither effectively communicate with the world nor understand its deeply criminal nature. If the novel is hilarious, it is also sometimes a little sad in the sweet, strangely amazing way of Charlie Chaplin….

Still, the novel has an important connection with life, because aside from the pleasure you take in reading it, you will have the wonderful pleasure of reading parts of it aloud to friends and watching the effects in their faces. Terrific comedians always make us "die laughing." Given the alternatives today, we should be grateful. (p. 26)

Leonard Michaels, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 20, 1977.

Curt Suplee

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For a thousand years the Arthurian legends have endured undiminished by progress or pessimism, and in this triumphant comic reaffirmation by Thomas Berger, they will continue to enthrall readers….

Of course, to portray a mortal man in a mythic situation is to invite comedy. And as John Barth did in Chimera, Berger [in Arthur Rex] exploits the humorous human potential to the fullest, but without compromising the integrity of the original legends—Gawaine and the Green Knight, or the tryst of Tristram and Isolde.

Instead, Berger enriches the texture of the tradition by speculating on the background of each knight—Percival's upbringing as a sissy in girls' clothes, Gawaine's fantastic carnal appetites, Launcelot's ascetic monasticism….

The familiar tales are told in a style as deliberately atavistic as that employed by the translators of the King James Bible in 1611, and to the same purpose: to give the whole a venerable aura and impact. Berger's 15th-century syntax, although inconsistently sustained, succeeds in giving the book both a self-mocking playfulness and a seeming gravity, according to his needs.

But even an imaginative retelling in antique language is less than Berger intends….

Berger's world of the Round Table and its comic-heroic exploits is more obstinately complex, less susceptible to moral redaction [than the earlier versions of the Arthurian legend told by Sir Thomas Malory, Tennyson, or T. H. White]. He knows that all true myths are ritual reenactments of timeless human dilemmas, endlessly suggestive, ultimately inscrutable.

Thus his very human heroes constantly find themselves trapped in ambiguity, and live their comic lives against a background of serious problems perplexingly unresolved: the nature of sin; the spirit versus the letter of the law; how to fulfill God's perfect will in man's fallen world; and how to maintain the artificial virtue of civilization without relapsing into primitive patterns….

Finally, the reader can only sympathize with Launcelot in his confusion: that if living is full of moral complexities, "it was because chivalry in general was more complicated than it seemed, for it is not easy always to know what is the noble thing, or what is brave and generous or even simply decent."

By having the confidence to leave an evocative story alone, and the courage to elaborate when appropriate, Thomas Berger synthesizes the disparate Arthurian romances into a splendid, consistent narrative—and makes them speak eloquently to a modern audience.

Moreover, he even provokes an unexpected nostalgia for that imaginary age in which honor was at stake in every daily act….

Curt Suplee, "Knights to Remember," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1978 The Washington Post), September 17, 1978, p. E8.

Garrett Epps

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Thomas Berger might be called the Green Knight of American fiction: a mysterious, protean outsider whose pose of destructiveness masks a fierce reverence for form and meaning….

Arthur Rex, a massive retelling of the Camelot legend, may be Berger's most ambitious book, at least in size and literary scale…. [Despite his] careful scholarship, despite a prose style which borders on genius, despite many funny moments and a few painfully sad ones, Arthur Rex, in the end, remains less than the sum of its parts. (p. 34)

Arthur Rex is not a spoof. Much of its narrative—the adulterous love of Launcelot and Guinevere, the parallel tragedy of Tristram, Isold, and Mark, Sir Gawaine's rise from lechery and fall into vengeance—is seriously intended and often quite moving. The central tragedy in the book is that of Arthur, who attempts to found his table on pure virtue. The book's subtitle is "A Legendary Novel"; taking this term in its oldest meaning, we might consider it as the life story not primarily of a King, but of a saint. For all Arthur's goofiness, his ability to take a pratfall when the author requires it, I think Berger may intend to show Arthur as exactly that: a man who aspires to Godliness with his whole being, a seeker of selflessness who suffers the defeat of those who try for perfection.

Berger ascribes a larger role in the story to God than did the reverent but skeptical Malory. The author of Arthur Rex takes a dark, deeply Protestant view of life: God gives to each of us a nature, with strengths and flaws we are powerless to change…. The end of life is not happiness or triumph, for our sinful natures preclude these; we must simply do the best we can with what we are given, and lose. We can lose honorably or otherwise—that is our only choice.

This dark parable emerges from a 500-page narrative which is jumbled, fragmented, almost formless. Given Berger's consistent record of literacy and care, I think we can assume this is not unintentional. (pp. 34-5)

One can even theorize that this jumbled effect—this deliberate splintering of character, narrative, and structure—might be Berger's mode of attack on the T. H. White novel, an attempt to erase the sanitized Camelot of The Once and Future King and restore the legend's mystery; to remind us that Le Morte d'Arthur continues to fascinate us because it is huge, redundant ("God's plenty," as Dryden called it) inconsistent—in fact, not a novel in the formal sense at all. (p. 35)

[Most] readers of this book will be familiar with White, and will measure Arthur Rex against it. And despite Berger's intelligence, wit, and integrity, the new novel loses the contest….

Berger's book is much concerned with the problem of evil and the power that the wicked wield in this world. "Evil," he writes, "is always more easily managed than virtue." But his villains do not scare us, and this is a serious flaw. White's Mordred was a real figure of dread, the whining, injured little rotter we all hate and fear in ourselves; but Berger, who teams Mordred up with Morgan la Fey, manages only to produce a semi-comic medieval Boris and Natasha, energetically wicked without real menace.

The best characters in Berger's work continue to live in the reader's mind long after he has closed the book (I think particularly of Ralph Sandifer, the horny teenager of Sneaky People). Those in Arthur Rex, I predict, will fade. Readers will laugh at parts of this book, feel despair and grief at others; but after they have finished, it will be White's pompous, pacifistic Arthur, not Berger's doomed saint, who lingers in their minds. (p. 36)

Garrett Epps, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 by The New Republic, Inc.), October 7, 1978.

John Romano

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Thomas Berger belongs, with Mark Twain and Mencken and Philip Roth, among our first-rate literary wiseguys. Savvy and skeptical, equipped with a natural eloquence and a knack for parody, he has been expertly flinging mud at the more solemn and self-important national myths for 20 years…. Mr. Berger's method … is to set [down his mythical landscapes] in his droll, relentlessly straight-faced prose, so as to empty them of romance, and let the brutal/crummy facts stare out. His pages swarm with bawdy puns and slapstick and bookish in-jokes; but even at his most absurd, his intrinsic tone is that of a hard-nosed realist who won't let the myths distort his essentially grouchy idea of the way things really are….

Doing good in a world that is mostly bad can have bizarre or disastrous consequences. This wry paradox is at the heart of Mr. Berger's interest in Good King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, and in their incorrigibly noble chivalric code. "Arthur Rex," Mr. Berger's newest novel, is his splendid, satiric retelling of the legend of Camelot. (p. 3)

Mr. Berger's masterpiece, it may be, is his treatment of Sir Launcelot, who unwittingly destroys the Round Table by his affair with Arthur's Queen Guinevere; and it's there, too, that Mr. Berger's command of the complex and contradictory traditions of these stories is most evident…. In older versions—the Arthur legend first turns up in a 12th-century manuscript—Launcelot was a shadowy, reluctant paramour, and Mr. Berger draws expertly on the earlier version to make good comic use of Launcelot's bloodless melancholy….

But it is in Mr. Berger's power, apparently, to be both farcical and moving at once. His hapless, retiring Launcelot is finally more likeable than the charm-boy of recent tradition….

The tragedy of Tristran and Isolde gets a lengthy but uninspired retelling, and the adventures of Sir Gawain in Liberty Castle are a good deal less powerful, less sexy, in Mr. Berger's version than in the original. The curious truth is that Mr. Berger's revisions are most authentic, most profound, when the admixture of parody is strongest. At those times—a good three-fourths of the book—he is never merely a parodist after all, but also a compelling yarnspinner in his own right: a Tolkien for the worldly. Indeed, stripped of their 19th-century sentiment by the author's deeply anti-Romantic ways, the stories have a leaner, more strident look than they have had in a long time. Not T. H. White's "The Once and Future King," nor John Steinbeck's mostly antiquarian version, but Thomas Berger's "Arthur Rex" is the Arthur book for our time. (p. 62)

John Romano, "Camelot and All That," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 12, 1978, pp. 3, 62.

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