Berger, Thomas 1924–

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Berger, Thomas 1924–

(Thomas Louis Berger)

PERSONAL: Born July 20, 1924, in Cincinnati, OH; son of Thomas Charles and Mildred (Bubbe) Berger; married Jeanne Redpath (an artist), June 12, 1950. Education: University of Cincinnati, B.A. (honors), 1948; Columbia University, graduate study, 1950–51.

ADDRESSES: Office—P.O. Box 11, Palisades, NY 10964-0011. Agent—Don Congdon Associates, 156 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.

CAREER: Novelist, short-story writer, and playwright. Rand School of Social Science, librarian, 1948–51; New York Times Index, staff member, 1951–52; Popular Science Monthly, associate editor, 1952–53; Esquire (magazine), film critic, 1972–73; University of Kansas, writer-in-residence, 1974; Southampton College Distinguished Visiting Professor, 1975–76; Yale University, lecturer, 1981, 1982; University of California—Davis, Regent's Lecturer, 1982. Military service: U.S. Army, 1943–46.

MEMBER: Authors Guild, Authors League of America, Phi Alpha Theta (honorary member).

AWARDS, HONORS: Dial fellowship, 1962; Western Heritage Award, and Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award, National Institute of Arts and Letters, both 1965, both for Little Big Man; Ohioana Book Award, 1982, for Reinhart's Women; Pulitzer Prize nomination, 1984, for The Feud; Litt.D., Long Island University, 1986.



Crazy in Berlin, Scribner (New York, NY), 1958.

Reinhart in Love, Scribner (New York, NY), 1962.

Little Big Man, Dial (New York, NY), 1964.

Killing Time, Dial (New York, NY), 1967.

Vital Parts, Baron (New York, NY), 1970.

Regiment of Women, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1973.

Sneaky People, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1975.

Who Is Teddy Villanova?, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1977.

Arthur Rex: A Legendary Novel, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1978.

Neighbors, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1980.

Reinhart's Women, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1981.

The Feud, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1983.

Nowhere, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1985.

Being Invisible, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1987.

The Houseguest, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1988.

Changing the Past, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1989.

Orrie's Story, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1990.

Meeting Evil, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1992.

Robert Crews, Morrow (New York, NY), 1994.

Suspects, Morrow (New York, NY), 1996.

The Return of Little Big Man, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1999.

Best Friends, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2003.

Adventures of the Artificial Woman, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2004.


Other People (play), first produced at Berkshire Theatre Festival, 1970.

Granted Wishes (short stories), Lord John Press (Northridge, CA), 1984.

(With Sidney L. Sondergard and William C. Bradford) An Index of Characters in Early Modern English Drama: Printed Plays, 1500–1660, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1998.

(Editor, with Laurie E. Maguire) Textual Formations and Reformations, University of Delaware Press (Newark, DE), 1999.

(Editor, with Jill L. Levenson and Barry Gaines) William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 1597, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2000.

Also author of play The Burglars, published in New Letters, fall, 1988. Contributor of short stories to periodicals, including Gentleman's Quarterly, American Review, Penthouse, Playboy, Saturday Evening Post, and Harper's.

ADAPTATIONS: Little Big Man was adapted as a film starring Dustin Hoffman, 1970; Neighbors was adapted as a film starring John Belushi, Universal, 1981.

SIDELIGHTS: "Thomas Berger belongs, with Mark Twain and [H. L.] Mencken and Philip Roth, among our first-rate literary wiseguys," wrote John Romano in the New York Times Book Review. "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 much of his career. Other critics offer similar assessments of Berger's talent, rating him as one of the leading American satiric novelists. Brom Weber called Berger in the Saturday Review "one of the most successful satiric observers of the ebb and flow of American life after World War II. His prolificacy promises a continued development of the tragicomic mode of vision." National Review contributor Guy Davenport called Berger "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." Davenport elaborated his praise, calling Berger "a comedian whose understanding of humanity is devilishly well informed and splendidly impartial. Nothing is exempt from the splash of his laughter. The result is an amazing universality."

Berger, who has said he writes to celebrate the creative possibilities of language, works in a variety of traditional fiction genres. His aim is not to produce parody, satire, or to diagnose social ills, though critics have recognized all these features in most of his novels. Critics have especially emphasized the comic social commentary in the books; and in at least two of his novels—Killing Time and Sneaky People—Berger makes serious comments on modern society. But the author's forte is the kind of mock-heroism found in one of his best-known novels, Little Big Man. While the 1970 motion-picture adaptation of the novel was a box-office success, many critics claimed it does not do justice to Berger's creation. Michael Harris stated in the Washington Post Book World that the novel Little Big Man, "unfortunately obscured by the movie, is nothing less than a masterpiece. American history itself provided Berger with his types—a set of buckskin-fringed waxworks bedizened with legend—and in blowing the myths up to ridiculous proportions he paradoxically succeeded in reclaiming history." Gerald Green, writing in Proletarian Writers of the Thirties, maintained that "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…. 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 contiguous—a trait which causes them to hate the railroad?"

Although Little Big Man was not an immediate success when it was first published in 1964, "its reputation has spread and solidified since then," according to R.V. Cassill of the New York Times Book Review. "On the strength of this prodigious work alone," Cassill continued, "the author's reputation can rest secure." Atlantic's David Denby believed the book to be "probably as close as sophisticated men can come to a genuine folk version of the Old West. Its central character, Jack Crabb, is not so much a hero as an Everyman—an essentially passive recorder of vivid experience. American history happens to him, runs over him, and fails to break him…. Crabb himself is decent, competent, hopeful, and neither outstandingly courageous or weak; life is sordid, absurd, and as Crabb always survives, surprisingly persistent in its ability to make him suffer…. Crabb just wants to survive."

In The Return of Little Big Man, published in 1999, Berger offers a sequel to his 1964 classic. Crabb picks up his earlier narrative with the aftermath of the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 and ends it with the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. In between, he relates a new set of adventures, chief among them his involvement with classic Western characters such as Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and Doc Holliday. He also enjoys an extended, and eventually heartbreaking, affair with Amanda Teasdale, whom he first meets in Dodge City, Kansas, in the late 1870s. Though he deeply loves the social justice-minded Amanda, Jack eventually realizes that he lacks the requisite emotional tools to make the relationship last. Verlyn Klinkenborg, writing in the New York Times Book Review, felt that the affair with Amanda is the central element in the novel: "If Jack's main struggle in Little Big Man is with the mentality represented by George Custer, his struggle in The Return of Little Big Man is with that embodied by Amanda Teasdale."

Though affirming that Little Big Man remains a classic of twentieth-century postwar literature, critics generally concluded that the novel's sequel did not measure up to its predecessor. David Ulin, writing in Chicago's Tribune Books, remarked on his "sense that Berger is not merely revisiting previously explored territory, but in some ways attempting to recreate his earlier novel, without giving this one anything new." Klinkenborg also expressed doubts that the sequel "offers the same radical freshness" as the original novel. Ulin, however, had praise for some of the novel's components, particularly the affair between Jack and Amanda. "Their scenes together are marked by a quickening of the narrative," wrote Ulin, who added that "by opening Jack up to [an unexpected emotional vulnerability,] Berger achieves a deeper truth than in all his historical reconstructions combined." Since Jack is still relatively young at the close of this narrative, reviewers also noted that Berger has set the stage for future works continuing Jack's life story.

Another Berger character who is, more than anything else, a survivor, is Carlo Reinhart, protagonist of Crazy in Berlin, Reinhart in Love, Vital Parts, and Reinhart's Women. Jib Fowles commented in the New Leader that both "Reinhart and Crabb were people that Berger obviously liked having around…. Reinhart was neither a comedian nor a scapegoat, but he was never far from things comic or painful…. Like most of us, Reinhart could not qualify as a hero or anti-hero; he got through, and Berger set it all down in wry and superbly-told accounts." Reinhart lives in the twentieth century, and the four books in which he appears take him from his youthful days in World War IICrazy in Berlin—to his middle years in the late 1970s—Reinhart's Women. A Newsweek reviewer noted that "Berger loves Carlo Reinhart, and he makes us love him, and he does this without resorting to tricks…. Reinhart is an unlikely hero: fat, 'bloated with emptiness,' scorned by women and animals, looked through as though he were polluted air, in debt, a voyeur, 'redundant in the logistics of life,' he nonetheless is a splendid man. He is novel, quick to forgive and hope."

Who Is Teddy Villanova? is Berger's exploitation of what New York Times contributor John Leonard called "the pulp detective story, in which, of course, nothing is as it seems and nothing ever makes any sense. The story, moreover, is populated entirely by people who talk like books, usually, but not always, nineteenth-century books by such Englishmen as Thomas Babington Macaulay and John Ruskin." Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Leonard Michaels commented on Berger's style, comparing it to that of writer S.J. Perelman—"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…. His whole novel … is like a huge verbal mirror. Its reflections are similar to what we see in much contemporary literature—hilarious and serious at once."

Having exposed the humor of American life from the Old West in Little Big Man to the twentieth century in the "Reinhart" series, Berger turns in Arthur Rex to a parody of time-honored myth and literature. New Republic reviewer Garrett Epps called the book "a massive retelling of the Camelot legend" and said that Arthur Rex "may be Berger's most ambitious book, at least in size and literary scale." Commenting in the New York Times Book Review on Berger's method in the retelling of the King Arthur morality tale, John Romano explained that the novelist paints 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 are."

In Neighbors Berger returned to the present suburban neighborhood and, according to New York Times contributor Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "parodies all the rituals of neighborliness—the competitiveness, the bonhomie, the striving for civility in the face of what seems to be barbarism—and compresses into a single day a lifetime of over-the-back-fence strife." Paul Gray, in a review for Time, called Neighbors "a tour de force, [Berger's] most successfully sustained comic narrative since Little Big Man…. Like the best black humor of the 1960s, Neighbors offers a version of reality skewed just enough to give paranoia a good name."

Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Thomas Edwards believed that Neighbors "raises yet again the embarrassing question of why Thomas Berger isn't more generally recognized as one of the masters of contemporary American fiction." Isa Kapp wrote in the New Republic: "It is a mystery of literary criticism, that Thomas Berger, one of the most ambitious, versatile, and entertaining of contemporary novelists, is hardly ever mentioned in the company of America's major writers. He is a wit, a fine caricaturist, and his prose crackles with Rabelaisian vitality." Edwards postulated, "No doubt the trouble has something to do with obtuse notions that funny writing can't really be serious, that major talents devote themselves to [big] subjects and elaborate fictional techniques, that Mr. Berger is too eclectic and unpredictable to be important…. But Neighbors proves once again that Thomas Berger is one of our most intelligent, witty and independent-minded writers, that he knows, mistrusts and loves the texture of American life and culture as deeply as any novelist alive, and that our failure to read and discuss him is a national disgrace."

The Feud relates the unwinding of small events into a sprawl of disaster. The owner of a hardware store sees a fire hazard in a customer's unlit cigar; discussion over this perceived threat ends when Reverton, the owner's cousin, forces the customer to apologize at gunpoint. The gun, it turns out, is harmless, but the series of revenges that follow are not; businesses, lives, and futures are destroyed before the novel's end. Berger makes the story comic as well as sad; thus the usual conventions of the feud novel gain new life from Berger, according to many reviewers. "What makes Thomas Berger's version so fresh is the innocent bewilderment of most of the people involved," Anne Tyler noted in the New York Times Book Review. Epps, writing in the Washington Post Book World, believed: "In presenting this pageant of ignorance, rage, and deceit, Berger is harsh but never cruel. In all their variety, his novels have consistently presented a serious view of humanity as a race utterly spoiled by something that looks a lot like Original Sin. This merciless vision frees Berger somehow to love even his less prepossessing creations."

Critical assessments of Nowhere and Being Invisible generally rate both as limited successes in comparison to Berger's other novels. A cross between a spy-thriller and an updated Gulliver's Travels, Nowhere allows Berger to joke about private eyes while examining human nature, remarked David W. Madden in the San Francisco Review of Books. Lehmann-Haupt, in the New York Times, viewed the novel as a courageous attempt "to poke fun at every excess of the world from the cold war to racial prejudice" via text troubled by the same kinds of excesses it ridicules. More important to Madden is Berger's "ability of consistently exploring new fictional possibilities" while at the same time returning to characters and themes seen in his earlier novels.

"There is a certain type of scene that no writer does better than Mr. Berger," maintained New York Times Book Review contributor Francine Prose: "the depiction of the instant when the most routine social encounter becomes—suddenly and without provocation or warning—pure hell; the simplest exchange of banalities turns sour, then surly, then rancorous, then violent." Accordingly, Being Invisible has its "moments of random brutality." The fact that Fred Wagner, the anti-hero of Being Invisible, can disappear at will gives his story some "marvelous ironies," including Fred's distaste "for the voyeurism, the petty crime, the guilty, secret delights" available to him when he vanishes, Prose related. In this "fantasy of the white male as victim," as Being Invisible was described by Los Angeles Times reviewer Carolyn See, Fred is "outnumbered by jerks—pushy, stupid, self-satisfied," noted Prose.

According to MacDonald Harris of the Washington Post Book World, Berger excels when observing quarrels "from the sidelines." "In The Houseguest," noted Harris, Berger "takes up the Quarrel again, and treats it in a way that is more complicated, more subtle, and more odd than anything in his previous work." The antagonist in this case is a charming visitor who gradually takes control of a well-to-do family's household. At first the Graves family do not resist this control, because the antagonist serves them as handyman and gourmet cook. But after the outsider steals from them and tricks their daughter into having sex with him, Graves family members decide to kill him. He not only survives their violent attacks but solidifies his place in the household by providing the amenities the Graveses have grown to expect.

Harris found The Houseguest the most interesting of Berger's novels "because it seems to suggest something more subtle going on under the surface" through an allegory that points to relations between the privileged and underprivileged. Since neither class behaves admirably, it is clear that "Berger will not take sides," Art Seidenbaum related in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Seidenbaum called the author's noncommittal stance a weakness, but other critics found it consistent with the view of humanity expressed in Berger's other books. In The Houseguest, said Harris, Berger remains "ready to strain our credence with … the loutish realism of his events. His humor is Rabelaisian: larger than life, improbable and always on the edge of vulgarity; his penchant for stripping off the dirty underwear of life is unrelenting."

Like Arthur Rex, Berger's novel Orrie's Story harkens back to an ancient myth, updates it, and provides the author a forum for his modern concerns. This time Berger's source is the Oresteia, the Greek tragedy that recounts the story of Orestes. A wife kills her husband; a son, Orestes, kills his mother; then Orestes flees from the Furies, but finds justice and redemption in the big city. For Berger, the well-known story offers a fitting framework for his dark comic satire. He includes all of the characters, only the names have been slightly altered, the setting and events updated, and the themes slightly twisted.

According to Washington Post Book World editor Nina King, Berger's adaptation was unsuccessful: Orrie's Story "is decidedly unsteady. It is also grim, colorless, flat." King also argued that the events in the novel do not develop in any purposeful way. "In The Oresteia, cause leads inexorably to effect, fate must work itself out, and 'men shall learn wisdom—by affliction schooled,'" she noted, countering that, "In Orrie's Story, randomness is all." Yet, Michael Harris found more to the novel. Orrie's Story resembles those earlier comedies of mutual incomprehension, Sneaky People and The Feud, in which the omniscient author reveals that all of his characters "are riddled with lust and chicanery and with a wacky but genuine innocence," Harris noted in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. "Every one of them is a type, right down to his or her innermost fantasies." By connecting these modern characters and their stories with those of Greek tragedy, Berger draws the parallels. "What he did with types," concluded Harris of the novelist, "he can do with archetypes just as well."

In Meeting Evil Berger attempts to push readers and critics alike to see his dark writing in a new light. As Laurel Graeber explained in a New York Times Book Review interview, "Berger is always annoyed that the public finds his novels funny." As the novelist told Graeber, "I think some people dismiss me as a clown who makes fun of serious things…. I've been trying in recent years to be grimmer and grimmer and grimmer…. I wanted to write a book no one could call comic." That book, Graeber pointed out, is Meeting Evil, which begins as real estate agent John Felton, an ordinary guy with a wife and two children, makes the mistake of answering the doorbell during breakfast one morning. At the door, John finds Richie, a motorist in need of help, or so Richie says. What John does not know is that he is at this moment meeting evil.

As Louis B. Jones pointed out in the New York Times Book Review, Berger "throws a nice guy together with a scoundrel for a day-long crime spree, and thereby submits niceness to a day-long test." Jones continued, "In a trip by turns scary and farcical, intended to examine the nature of evil itself, Mr. Berger arrives at a … paradox of our century: that innocence consorts, mysteriously, with evil." This may occur because each person comprises both good and evil, an idea that emerges in Meeting Evil as Berger raises the possibility that Richie is just the darker side of John. Joseph Coates remarked upon this quality in his Chicago Tribune Book World review, while also noting Berger's ability to keep characters and readers struggling with this issue. "To the last line and beyond," Coates continued, "this brilliant and troubling book keeps in suspense the question of 'who was the greater criminal to the other'—a question Richie typically forces John to face and resolve, if either he or we can."

In Robert Crews Berger again updates a literary classic, this time creating a Robinson Crusoe story for the 1990s. Robert Crews is a middle-aged man who has never had to worry about money, thanks to his inherited wealth. As a result, he has spent an aimless life in a drunken stupor feeling sorry for himself. A fishing trip with what pass for friends comes to an abrupt end when the small plane carrying Crews and his fishing party goes down in a lake somewhere in a north country forest. Crews is the only survivor. "Just as in the original tale," suggested Thomas M. Disch in the Washington Post Book World, there is a strong didactic component. "The moral of Berger's story is drawn from the most successful theology of the present time, the recovery movement." The struggle for survival in nature proves just what Crews needs. He slowly and painfully develops the skills needed to stay alive, and eventually he meets his Friday in the person of a woman escaping from her abusive husband.

Crews's newfound skills and redemption come too easily for some reviewers. For Philip Graham in Chicago's Tribune Books, Crews "mysteriously develops a woodsman's competence too quickly, leaving behind decades of heavy drinking with no apparent ill effects." James Knudsen wrote in World Literature Today that, "Although the narrator steps in to tell us that Crews has changed from his old ways, we never come to understand how he changed." Still, Knudsen admitted that "despite its problems, Robert Crews is immaculately written and entertaining."

In Suspects Berger returns to a more straightforward narrative—straightforward, that is, within Berger's universe. The story begins with the murder of Donna Howland, whom Richard Bernstein in the New York Times described as "a sexy but prudish housewife in an anonymous American city," who is killed along with her baby daughter, Amanda, "both of them sliced up in an act of gothic horror suggesting a peculiar American dementia." Detectives Nick Moody and Dennis LeBeau—both "artfully named," Bernstein pointed out—begin their investigation, and naturally their attention focuses on those closest to the deceased. There is Larry, Donna's philandering husband, and Larry's half-brother, Lloyd, a brooding and apparently unstable drifter who bore a deep passion for Donna. The solution to the murders may seem obvious, but Joe Queenan in the New York Times Book Review assured readers that it is not. "All these odd goings-on are described in such a matter-of-fact way," Queenan wrote, "that it takes a long time to realize how profoundly odd the whole book is."

Bernstein concluded that, "Here and there, Suspects glints like a mirror in the sun, showing its author's obviously big talent, but it is not a major work in Mr. Berger's large oeuvre. The light doesn't glint quite often enough." Michael Dirda in the Washington Post Book World gave the novel higher marks, while suggesting that it pales in comparison to Berger's more powerful novels: "Suspects really is a good, engrossing book, a bit meandering but smooth, professional, and better than any television police show it might resemble…. So if Suspects isn't in the same class as, say, Killing Time, which it loosely resembles … any Berger fan will still want to read the new book." Queenan conceded that, while "The Fraternal Order of Police" may not care for the book, "Suspects is an engrossing, often hilarious offering from one of our most persistently strange writers."

Berger's novel Best Friends introduces Roy Courtright and Sam Grandy, who have known each other since childhood. Roy is the wealthy owner of a classic car business and a compulsive womanizer, and his success is built on inherited wealth. Sam's life is very different; a spendthrift, he often runs short of money and is dependent on his wife, Kirsten. Though Roy's dealings with women make him seem superficial, he does have a great loyalty to Sam, who has become bloated and dull since the days of their youth. Roy repeatedly gives Sam money when he needs it. He feels some contempt for his friend, yet he repeatedly sets those feelings aside, grateful to his friend for the years of friendship. Roy is intrigued by Kirsten, but because she is Sam's wife, he keeps his distance from her, which is remarkable behavior for him. Then Sam suffers a series of heart attacks. As he becomes increasingly ill, Kirsten and Roy are drawn together. Sympathy turns to lust, and revelations about Sam's opinion of his friend change the relationship between the two, with surprising results.

Roy's point of view dominates Best Friends, and his "shallow, amoral view of the world" is used effectively by Berger, according to Ellen Emry Heltzel in the Seattle Times. The use of "Roy's vacuity to its fullest effect" is both "the book's strength and its weakness," related Heltzel. "Either you relate to these people as they stumble blindly through life, or you want to spank them for their childish ways. In the end, Best Friends is a mundane cautionary tale about the unexamined life." New York Times writer Richard Eder ranked Best Friends as one of the author's best efforts, calling it "a tautly drawn tragicomedy taking one more mythical swipe at contemporary life." He added: "Not often are the scruples, veiled steps, retreats and advances of an adulterous affair so shrewdly and erotically portrayed." Dorman T. Shindler, a contributor to the Denver Post, found the book "slight on plot, but featuring some very strong and well-drawn characters." He added that it "focuses on the values of friendship, the sometimes fragile nature of a marital relationship and the duality inherent in everyone's personality." Robert E. Brown, a reviewer for Library Journal, concluded that Berger "succeeds with characterization, detail, ethical complication, and nuance, and the result is outstanding."



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