Thomas (Louis) Berger Biography
Thomas Berger comments:
Nationality: American. Born: Cincinnati, Ohio, 1924. Education: The University of Cincinnati, B.A. 1948; Columbia University, New York, 1950-51. Military Service: Served in the United States Army, 1943-46. Career: Librarian, Rand School of Social Science, New York, 1948-51; staff member, New York Times Index, 1951-52; associate editor, Popular Science Monthly, New York, 1952-54; film critic, Esquire, New York, 1972-73; writer-in-residence, University of Kansas, Lawrence, 1974; Distinguished Visiting Professor, Southampton College, New York, 1975-76; visiting lecturer, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1981, 1982; Regents' Lecturer, University of California, Davis, 1982. Awards: Dial fellowship, 1962; Western Heritage award, 1965; Rosenthal award, 1965. Litt.D.: Long Island University, Greenvale, New York, 1986. Agent: Don Congdon Associates, 156 Fifth Avenue, Suite 625, New York, New York 10010, U.S.A.
Crazy in Berlin. New York, Scribner, 1958.
Reinhart in Love. New York, Scribner, 1962; London, Eyre andSpottiswoode, 1963.
Little Big Man. New York, Dial Press, 1964; London, Eyre andSpottiswoode, 1965.
Killing Time. New York, Dial Press, 1967; London Eyre andSpottiswoode, 1968.
Vital Parts. New York, Baron, 1970; London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1971.
Regiment of Women. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1973; London, Eyre Methuen, 1974.
Sneaky People. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1975; London, Methuen, 1980.
Who Is Teddy Villanova? New York, Delacorte Press, and London, Eyre Methuen, 1977.
Arthur Rex: A Legendary Novel. New York, Delacorte Press, 1978;London, Methuen, 1979.
Neighbors. New York, Delacorte Press, 1980; London, Methuen, 1981.
Reinhart's Women. New York, Delacorte Press, 1981; London, Methuen, 1982.
The Feud. New York, Delacorte Press, 1983; London, Methuen, 1984.
Nowhere. New York, Delacorte Press, 1985; London, Methuen, 1986.
Being Invisible. Boston, Little Brown, 1987; London, Methuen, 1988.
The Houseguest. Boston, Little Brown, 1988; London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989.
Changing the Past. Boston, Little Brown, 1989; London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1990.
Orrie's Story. Boston, Little Brown, 1990.
Meeting Evil. Boston, Little Brown, 1992.
Robert Crews. New York, Morrow, 1994.
Suspects. New York, William Morrow and Company, 1996.
The Return of Little Big Man. Boston, Little, Brown, 1999.
Granted Wishes. Northridge, California, Lord John Press, 1984.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Professor Hyde," in Playboy (Chicago), December 1961.
"A Monkey of His Own," in Saturday Evening Post (Philadelphia), 22 May 1965.
"Fatuous Fables," in Penthouse (London), March 1973.
"Envy," in Oui (Chicago), April 1975.
"The Achievement of Dr. Poon," in American Review 25, edited byTheodore Solotaroff. New York, Bantam, 1976.
"Tales of the Animal Crime Squad," in Playboy (Chicago), December 1980.
"The Methuselah Factor," in Gentlemen's Quarterly (New York), September 1984.
"Planet of the Losers," in Playboy (Chicago), November 1988.
"Gibberish," in Playboy (Chicago), December 1990.
"Personal Power," in Playboy (Chicago), December 1992.
Other People (produced Stockbridge, Massachussetts, 1970).
Little Big Man, 1970; The Neighbors, 1981; The Feud, 1989.
"Thomas Berger: Primary and Secondary Works" by James Bense, in Bulletin of Bibliography 6(2), 1994.
Boston University Library.
"Bitter Comedy" by Richard Schickel, in Commentary (New York), July 1970; "Thomas Berger's Little Big Man as History" by Leo Oliva, in Western American Literature (Fort Collins, Colorado), vol. 8, nos. 1-2, 1973; "Thomas Berger's Elan" by Douglas Hughes, in Confrontation (New York), Spring-Summer 1976; "The Radical Americanist" by Brooks Landon, and "The Second Decade of Little Big Man " by Frederick Turner, both in Nation (New York), 20 August 1977; "Berger and Barth: The Comedy of Decomposition" by Stanley Trachtenberg, in Comic Relief edited by Sarah Blacher Cohen, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1978; "Thomas Berger Issue" (includes bibliography) of Studies in American Humor (San Marcos, Texas), Spring and Fall 1983; "Reinhart as Hero and Clown" by Gerald Weales, in Hollins Critic (Hollins College, Virginia), December 1983; "Laughter as Self-Defense in Who Is Teddy Villanova?," in Studies in American Humor (San Marcos, Texas), Spring 1986, and "A Murderous Clarity: A Reading of Thomas Berger's Killing Time, " in Philological Quarterly (Iowa City), Winter 1989, both by Jon Wallace; Thomas Berger by Brooks Landon, Boston, Twayne, 1989; Critical Essays on Thomas Berger edited by David W. Madden, New York, G. K. Hall, 1995.
I write to amuse and conceal myself.
* * *
Thomas Berger's novels exhibit an extraordinary comic sensibility, a satiric talent for wild caricature, and a concern for the quality of middle-class life in middle America. His novels chronicle the decline and fall of the Common Man in 20th-century America and meticulously detail the absurdities of our civilizations. Berger is one of the subtlest and most accurate parodists writing today, with a flawless sense of style and proportion that is charged with comic vitality.
His Reinhart saga (Crazy in Berlin, Reinhart in Love, Vital Parts, and Reinhart's Women) follows Carlo Reinhart from adolescence to middle age, detailing his career as a soldier in occupied Germany, a GI Bill student, and a failed wage-slave and decrepit father in the bewildering America of the 1980s. Reinhart epitomizes the failure of good intentions. A believer in the American Dream as purveyed in magazines, high-school classrooms, and advertisements, Carlo is a constant victim of deceit and fraud. Like the Good Soldier Schweik, Carlo takes the world at face value and assumes that appearance is reality; unlike Schweik, Carlo is guileless and incapable of hypocrisy, so he is perpetually victimized and disillusioned. The comedy arises in the gulf between Carlo's expectations and his experience.
In Crazy in Berlin Carlo is swept up in conspiracy, involved with spies and criminals dividing the spoils of the fallen Nazi state. A good-natured slob and summer soldier, Carlo survives, but he is driven to murder and madness, shattered not by war but by the lunacy of peace. The novel exudes the bitter ironies of sophisticated slapstick comedy, similar to Preston Sturges's films. Carlo, a bewildered, optimistic average man, is driven mad by the Hobbesian nightmare of Occupied Germany.
The second novel, Reinhart in Love, continues the mock-heroic saga. Carlo returns to the purported normality of peace-time America to continue college on the GI Bill. Again he is duped, exploited, and betrayed as Orlando himself, charged with cosmic love: " Reinhart was in love with everything. " But as his boss tells him, the world is still a Hobbesian jungle, with every man's hand raised against his fellows: "life, real life, is exactly like the fighting, except in the latter you use guns and therefore don't destroy as many people." The novel ends with Carlo married by deception to a shrew, failed even at suicide and bereft of ideals and ambitions, ready to move upward and onward.
Vital Parts moves ahead 20 years to reveal Reinhart still married to his shrew and father to a fat, mooning daughter and a vicious ne'erdo-well son. He has failed at every capitalistic venture, lost his hair and youth, gained debts and a paunch. Again in suicidal despair, he becomes involved in a bizarre cryogenics scheme—to immortality via technology. He becomes the guinea pig in a scheme to freeze and revive a human being. Carlo feels he has little to choose between an absurd life, an absurd death, and a remote hope of immortality.
In Reinhart's Women, Carlo achieves a degree of peace with his wife and daughter, as he takes on a new role as a gourmet cook. Berger makes Carlo here less the ever-ready butt of slapstick and more the master of his destiny, as if Carlo were growing in later middle age into himself. The book's comedy is mellower and less acerbic than the view of corrupt post-World War II culture from which Berger began the saga.
In Little Big Man Berger also uses mock-heroic satire, here on the elaborate mythology of the Old West. A tale of cowboys and Indians told from both views, the novel describes the only white survivor of the Battle of the Little Big Horn—111-year-old Jack Crabb, victim of Indian attacks, Indian, Indian-fighter, gunfighter, gambler, con man, etc. The novel follows the "half-man, half-alligator" tradition of frontier humor, bursting with gigantic hyper-bole. It is also a detailed, convincing picture of prairie life, both with the Cheyenne (the "Human Beings") and with the white settlers. The violence, squalor, and monotony of life in raw nature are as intensely realized as the farce. Jack Crabb is a frontier Carlo Reinhart, with the same insecurities, the same propensities for confusion and cowardice, the same common humanity.
Arthur Rex may be the finest redaction of the legend since Malory. It is a labor of love for pure story and style in which Berger's brilliant prose is honed like Excalibur itself. A straightforward rendering of the Arthurian material, the novel is a tribute to romance, adventure, and storytelling as the roots of our literature. Berger makes the characters come sharply alive in vigorous, dramatic scenes and retains the mixture of exuberance and nostalgia which defines the ancient cycle.
A theme inherent in Berger's work is that of metamorphosis—transformation, counterfeiting, deception, the shiftiness of reality. Who Is Teddy Villanova?, Nowhere, and Neighbors focus on this theme. Detective fiction and cold-war thrillers are parodied in the first two novels, which follow the hapless adventures of Russel Wren, an inept semi-pro detective who is constantly overwhelmed by violent events beyond his perception. Who Is Teddy Villanova? caricatures the conventions of the tough-guy detective novel, and Nowhere brilliantly combines the spy story and the utopian romance. An atmosphere of bizarre paranoia suffuses both installments of the Wren romance. In Neighbors the same mode is applied to suburban realities. Earl Keese, prone to hallucinations, is subjected to a series of emotional and mental assaults by a man and woman who move in next door. The story turns on paradoxes and illusions, an increasingly grotesque feeling that things are never what they seem. In Berger's view, our culture has crashed through the looking glass, where absurdity rules all and everything turns by subtle and malicious irony into its opposite.
Sneaky People and The Feud also anatomize middle-class American life; both are set in the 1930s and deal with the peculiar conflation of acquisitiveness and sexuality which creates the ethos for the people-next-door culture described in Neighbors. A mixture of healthy cynicism and obvious nostalgia makes the narratives attractive as satires on the conventional American success story. The Houseguest extends the comedy of domestic paranoia that shaped Sneaky People, Neighbors, and The Feud. In his usual absurdist/surrealist manner, Berger constructs a Kafkaesque novel of invaded hospitality and territorial hostility.
Being Invisible and Changing the Past mine Berger's fantastic-speculative vein. Each is a cautionary tale about power—one on the old idea of the presumed powers of invisibility, the other a "three wishes" story of a man granted the power to relive his life. The novels are fables on the vanity of human wishes and the inevitability of over-reaching. Their comedy mirrors serious concerns with the ethics of power, the intractability of ego and the illusory nature of freedom and choice.
In Orrie's Story Berger retells the Orestes legend as a contemporary, post-Vietnam fiction. Less successfully than in the majestic Arthur Rex, he reinvents the past to illumine our complex present. Suspects, Berger's twentieth novel, is a murder mystery busy with extraneous details, as though the author was not content to offer up something so ordinary as a good, solidly suspenseful read. It came on the heels of Robert Crews, which found him on familiar ground: the tale of a hapless figure who ultimately finds a place for himself—if not a full understanding of his circumstances—in the midst of a larger drama. As its title suggests, the protagonist is a Robinson Crusoe type, and his "Friday" is a woman running away from her abusive husband. With The Return of Little Big Man, Berger stepped onto even more familiar territory. The book finds the unflappable Jack Crabb at age 112, witnessing events ranging from the shootout at the O.K. Corral (predictably, this time Wyatt Earp is the villain, not the Clanton brothers) and the appearance of Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley in London, where Queen Victoria attends their Wild West Show.
—William J. Schafer
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