Who Is Teddy Villanova?

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Russel Wren, the unlikely name of Thomas Berger’s protagonist in Who Is Teddy Villanova?, suggests a timid bird hiding in the shrubbery, hardly a fit companion for his famed contemporaries in fiction—Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer, and Travis McGee, or their TV counterparts, Cannon, Mannix, and Rockford. Sturdy names these, full of forceful k’s and p’s and t’s, appropriate for brave men who will put their lives on the line for their clients. But who in this hardboiled world is the lilting Russel Wren? And who is Teddy Villanova?

Teddy Villanova, to answer the less interesting question first, turns out to be Wren’s landlord, who wants to frighten all of his tenants into giving up their leases so he can sell his building to some black hoodlums. In a real detective novel, it would be unforgivable to give away the plot, but this is a spoof. Russel Wren, if a movie were made of his story, would have to be played by Woody Allen, hardly our image of the strongman. This bird is the creation of one of our most gifted satirists and stylists, Thomas Berger, who has in fact a great deal in common with Allen, and who helped prepare the way for his subtly iconoclastic form of humor.

Like Allen, Berger has a knack for linking satiric social commentary with popular entertainment; in the 1960’s when television westerns were the dominant form of popular art, Berger wrote Little Big Man, a retelling of Custer’s last stand as seen by a long-forgotten survivor. Berger’s wry, sardonic view of the American West and its heroic tradition coincided with a flurry of revisionist alterations of American history generally, and also with the onset of the Vietnam War, which was to result in the questioning of many attitudes associated with the Western tradition. Thus Little Big Man foreshadowed the great number of works which challenged the traditional view of the West in the late 1960’s; among these were Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, notorious even now for its brutality; Arthur Kopit’s Indians, a satiric attack on Buffalo Bill; and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which glorified the rebel and the criminal.

Today the story of mystery and detection is riding high in the saddle, so to speak—even combining, as in McCloud, the old West and the new police story. But like Westerns and like science fiction, the detective novel has not been considered part of the mainstream of literature, although, like them, it has always been very popular. It is safe to say that aside from Edgar Allan Poe, no major American writers have written mystery and detective fiction of any consequence.

The same might have been said, with considerably less justification, of Westerns before Berger wrote Little Big Man. And at first glance it might appear that Who Is Teddy Villanova? is an exception to the rule that our prominent American writers eschew detective novels. Certainly Berger, with seven novels to his credit since Crazy in Berlin in 1958, has received a fair share of critical acclaim as well as a growing body of readers, and seems well on his way to becoming a major American writer; and certainly Who Is Teddy Villanova? seems to be a mystery. But a parody is not really in the same category as original literature; Little Big Man was an original novel with elements of parody; Who Is Teddy Villanova? is a lark, an excursion for Berger. His novel is a delightful entertainment which requires a fairly substantial knowledge of the genre before it can be fully appreciated; it is as though, as the reviewer for The New York Times Book Review said, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler had been rewritten by The New Yorker humorist, S. J. Perelman.

It is worth noting that the review quoted above occupied the prestigious front page of The New York Times Book Review, which is ordinarily given over to books with more claims to attention than mysteries or parodies of mysteries. In this case, what is significant is not so much the book itself but our attitudes toward the premises and conventions of the form which it parodies. For, as has often been noted, the appeal of the detective novel is that it asserts the possibility of order and reason in an apparently chaotic and meaningless world. The notion that things can be figured out is a comforting illusion, one feels, along with similar illusions about the brave pioneers of the West, as in pre-1965 Western films, and about brave pioneers of the future, as in popular films such as the recent Star Wars. Is Berger trying to shred our illusions about the popular knight-errant of modern culture, the private eye, just as he did, to a lesser extent, with General Custer in Little Big Man?

Perhaps. The kind of fiction parodied in Who Is Teddy Villanova? has certain immutable elements, all of which are prominently featured in this novel. They consist of the character of the hero, the setting, and the plot.

By and large, the hero in detective stories is an outsider, a loner, a man with a shadowy past and little concern for the future; he is classless, apolitical, and unaligned with any group. A man of principle in a shabby business peopled by fools and knaves, he is physically adroit, like John MacDonald’s Travis McGee; he is compassionate, because he has a tragic view of life, like Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer; he is as persistent as Cannon, as virile as Mannix, as smart as Columbo, as amused as Rockford—he is all of these and more, for personality is paramount in these modern fairy tales; style...

(The entire section is 2317 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Choice. XIV, September, 1977, p. 854.

Nation. CCXXV, August 20, 1977, p. 151.

New Statesman. XCIV, September 23, 1977, p. 418.

New York Review of Books. XXIV, May 26, 1977, p. 39.

Newsweek. LXXXIX, April 4, 1977, p. 85.

Sewanee Review. LXXXV, October, 1977, p. 687.