One of America’s last literary lions has stopped writing novels, and hardly anybody has noticed.
“Around age 85, I did write a 24th novel, really more of a novella,” Thomas Berger tells National Review, “but when several admirers of my other books read the MS and either said nothing or produced a polite mumble, I decided to shelve it with the collection of my papers at the library of Boston University, there perhaps one day to be found by some graduate student prowling in search of a forgotten scribbler for a dissertation.”
In case the name rings only a muffled bell, Thomas Berger, who will celebrate his 90th birthday this summer, is the author of Neighbors, Reinhart’s Women, The Feud, Arthur Rex, Who Is Teddy Villanova? and Little Big Man. So he’s in a position to know whether a book is up to snuff.
But Berger’s withdrawal from novel writing has produced little clamor even among his admirers, who, Wikipedia notes, “often bemoan that his talent and achievement are so under-appreciated, in view of his versatility across many forms of fiction, his precise use of language, and his probing intelligence.”
“Under-appreciated,” like “genius,” may be a word too often used. Up through his most recent novel — 2004’s Adventures of the Artificial Woman — Berger was highly regarded. The New York Times regularly hired name writers — including Joe Queenan, Donald Westlake, and Francine Prose — to write reverent, usually glowing reviews.
Yet the publishing community, never known for excessive warmth, has barely noted his absence. Two years ago, a retirement announcement from Philip Roth, then 79, got the kind of coverage that shows up even in the news feed of your default startup browser. I’ve read three books by Roth and that news did not move me half as much as Berger’s simple response when I asked about his next novel: “There is nothing in the works.”
That’s a painfully quiet retirement for one of the last members of a literary generation that dominated the culture in a way novelists are unlikely ever to do again. Stanley Elkin, John Updike, Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut, and many others are gone. Berger is still around. He’s just not writing novels.
“Berger is well enough known in critical circles and to writers that you can’t call him unknown or undervalued,” Brooks Landon, a University of Iowa literature professor who has written two studies of Berger’s work, tells National Review. “But he is a real unexamined treasure in American literature. At times I have been incredibly sad and embarrassed that my efforts to get more people to enjoy the pleasures of Berger have not been more successful.”
Hollywood did fall for Thomas Berger: The Feud, Neighbors, Meeting Evil, and Little Big Man have been adapted as feature films, with mixed and sometimes good results. It’s also true that one of his admirers has in fact checked up on the writer in his rest. (Berger now describes himself as having “become a valetudinarian.”) Jonathan Lethem, author of Fortress of Solitude and other highly regarded novels, wrote a moving essay detailing his pen-pal friendship with Berger for the Times in 2012.
Nor has Berger been totally silent. In 2013 he brought out the e-book Abnormal Occurrences, a collection of short stories including new and previously published work. It’s worth a read. (Fans of the YouTube video “How English sounds to non-English speakers” will enjoy Berger’s very different, much earlier take on the same theme in the surreal business story “Gibberish.”)
In fact, it’s striking how undiminished Berger’s powers seem to be. His most recent novel, the throwback science-fiction farce Artificial Woman, is constructed mainly out of outrageous plot turns and absurd scenes, such as one in which a derelict animatronics master sees an ad for a major Hollywood action movie starring Phyllis, his fembot creation — who earlier tied him up and abandoned him in order to pursue a career in entertainment. Yet Berger’s language remains strong and precise:
Brandishing a triumphant sword, she stood with one stiletto-heeled boot on the chest of a fallen warrior, a gargantuan mass of naked muscle in fur habiliments, hairy-faced, grimacing. Phyllis’s own countenance was cold and insensate, much less human-looking than when she had been with Ellery. In fact, she looked like a robot, for the first time.
Just the year before, in the fully realistic chamber piece Best Friends (it’s more or less axiomatic that every Berger book is a complete departure from the previous one), the author describes how a middle-aged man, after drinks, assesses a woman who is ready to spend the night with him:
She emptied what was left in the glass, then swallowed some air, making a deliberate process of it, raising her eyebrows when it was over. Roy realized they were cosmetically darkened, else they would probably have been pale as the lashes she forgot to color. The freckles were subdued on her cheeks, perhaps by her makeup, but more prominent across her small nose. He liked her more and more, but if anything, desired her less.
Berger has also written hardboiled crime, family epic, sword and sorcery, and magical realism. His suburban-surrealist novel Neighbors (1980) expertly describes the gestures and vocabularies of polite America and the ways predators turn those to their advantage. Yet on the first page, in a description of its hapless hero, the book announces how that intense realism is going to mingle with compounding weirdness:
Were Keese to accept the literal witness of his eyes, his life would have been of quite another character, perhaps catastrophic, for outlandish illusions were, if not habitual with him, then at least none too rare for that sort of thing. Perhaps a half-dozen times a year he thought he saw such phenomena as George Washington urinating against the wheel of a parked car (actually an old lady bent over a cane), a nun run amok in the middle of an intersection (policeman directing traffic), a rat of record proportions (an abandoned football), or a brazen pervert blowing him a kiss from the rear window of a bus (side of sleeping workingman’s face, propped on hand).
So rich is Berger’s language that he takes on whole genres for the pleasure of swinging around their styles. From the 1978 Arthurian romance Arthur Rex:
Then Tristram using all his force smote the Morholt through the waist, cutting off his lower portions altogether, and the huge trunk fell heavily onto the ground yet stayed upright and was as tall as Sir Tristram though three times as broad, and the Morholt was no nearer to dying, for (contrary to King Mark’s belief) he was immortal except if his head was lost. But his blood did flow vastly and cover the entire islet, the sand of which is colored red to this day, and he did wax wroth at the loss of his lower body, for he set great store in his privy parts, with which he had misused myriads of men, women, children, and even animals, and indeed he knew no other pleasure.
As these samples indicate, Berger does most of his work in the third-person limited-omniscient mode — the Cadillac of narrative voices. But he is best known for having created one of the greatest first-person narrators since Huckleberry Finn.
Little Big Man (1964) and its sequel, The Return of Little Big Man (1999), are narrated by 111-year-old Jack Crabb, an Old West raconteur who tells an impossibly exciting yet fully plausible tale that includes close relationships with Wild Bill Hickok and George Armstrong Custer, a narrow escape from death at the Battle of Little Big Horn, and an unforgettably detailed portrait of life as an adoptee among the Cheyenne nation. The first volume, in which Crabb recounts his life to a credulous and self-interested historian in the 1950s, is Berger’s biggest hit and best-known book, still treasured as an early western written with great empathy for (and no sentimentality about) American Indians.
But in the sequel, which continued Crabb’s story past the closing of the frontier and into the era of Wild West shows (and the narrator’s own escape from the pushy historian), it became clear that the puzzle of Jack Crabb was not easily solved. Described by the Times’ Verlyn Klinkenborg as “a free agent, a man whose few prejudices were wholly empirical and confined mostly to individuals,” Crabb is also a stringent historian who insists that if you weren’t there, you don’t know what happened. Yet he is telling the tallest of tales to a 20th-century dupe, with elaborate and persuasive detail. Is he totally reliable, unreliable, super-reliable?
More important, will he ever come back, to bring his frontier narrative into the age of freeways, air travel, radio and television?
“I serve as his amanuensis, writing at his dictation,” Berger demurs when asked whether there will be a third Crabb novel. “I never consciously invent what he says or does.”
In any event, it’s not Crabb that Berger fans most hope to meet again, but Carlo Reinhart, the unsinkable hero of four novels, from 1958’s Crazy in Berlin (Berger’s first) through Reinhart in Love (1962), Vital Parts (1970), and Reinhart’s Women (1981). Berger has in the past described Reinhart as “my buddy” and a character originally intended to be “a marionette in my own image.” The books cover Reinhart’s progress from a placid, ungainly soldier in conquered Germany to a put-upon patriarch in a radically changing Midwest. They have a ready analogue in Updike’s “Rabbit” series, but the Reinhart books, with their decent, curious, fair-minded hero, are more enjoyable. The last book ended with the aging, wiser Reinhart, largely though not totally deserted by wife and children, having attained moderate success as a celebrity chef — a prescient plot twist more than three decades before the flowering of contemporary philosopher-chef culture.
But Berger won’t rise to that bait today: “It is difficult to see Reinhart as one of the personalities on the Food Channel,” he says. “Perhaps he could have moderate success on local TV and as the author of a book on the cuisine of Ohio.”
I am not alone in importuning Berger for another book. “Though any of us would be lucky to have written as well for as long as Tom, I’ve had the same difficulty resigning myself to no-new-Bergers,” Jonathan Lethem, a tireless Berger advocate, tells National Review. “But I’ve contented myself that, at least, he’s still around to lionize, reread, and, for me, correspond with — I’m luckier than most Berger readers, in that way. I know he’s reading, as always, in gigantic portions — a good reward, I think, for his labors.”
In fact, Berger seems to be enjoying the technological leap that is eclipsing the print novel, and maybe the novel itself, as a cultural item. “I am enthusiastic about electronic books,” he says from his home on the bank of the Hudson in Rockland County, N.Y., where he lives with his wife of 64 years. “On my Kindle I can and do reread the things I loved as a child, the adventures of Frank Merriwell, the wonderful historical novels of Joseph Altsheler, Stover at Yale. . . . My most recent reading has been the 1766 account of his visit to France and Italy by Tobias Smollett, one of my favorite novelists.”
Berger in fact appears to be reasonably content, or at least to show a Reinhartian equanimity in the face of life’s outrages. During Superstorm Sandy, he notes, the Hudson “demolished the lowest floor of our house, but that was a small price to pay for waking up each sunrise with a three-mile-wide view of this estuary of the Atlantic.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Little Big Man. “So far as I know, nothing is being done about it,” Berger says. But we are lucky to have Berger, with his bemused intelligence, his eye for reality’s essential strangeness, still with us on earth. “I confess I’m always astonished to hear that anybody has liked a book of mine,” Berger says.