Authors: Thomas Berger

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Crazy in Berlin, 1958

Reinhart in Love, 1962

Little Big Man, 1964

Killing Time, 1967

Vital Parts, 1970

Regiment of Women, 1973

Sneaky People, 1975

Who Is Teddy Villanova?, 1977

Arthur Rex, 1978

Neighbors, 1980

Reinhart’s Women, 1981

The Feud, 1983

Nowhere, 1985

Being Invisible, 1987

The Houseguest, 1988

Changing the Past, 1989

Orrie’s Story, 1990

Meeting Evil, 1992

Robert Crews, 1995

Suspects, 1996

The Return of Little Big Man, 1999

Drama:

Other People, pr. 1970

Biography

Few writers are as agile at manipulating the conventions of the novel form as Thomas Louis Berger, the son of Thomas Charles and Mildred (Bubbe) Berger. He served in the U.S. Army from 1943 to 1946, mainly in Germany, an experience that is reflected in Crazy in Berlin, the first of the four Reinhart series novels. After World War II, Berger graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 1948 and did graduate work at Columbia University. In 1950, he married Jeanne Redpath, and during the 1950’s he earned his living as an editor, working for The New York Times Index and Popular Science Monthly. In 1962, he was named a Dial Fellow for Rinehart in Love, and in 1965 he received the Western Heritage Award and the Richard and Hilda Rosenthal Award for Little Big Man. That novel was made into a successful film in 1970. Berger often published in Esquire, and he served as that magazine’s film critic from 1972 to 1973. He has been a writer-in-residence at Kansas University anda lecturer at Yale University and the University of California at Davis.{$I[AN]9810001378}{$I[A]Berger, Thomas}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Berger, Thomas}{$I[tim]1924;Berger, Thomas}

Berger’s novels often parody various forms of the novel. The Reinhart series–Crazy in Berlin, Reinhart in Love, Vital Parts, and Reinhart’s Women–forms a kind of extended Bildungsroman. Sneaky People and The Feud are coming-of-age stories with a small-town Ohio setting, Who Is Teddy Villanova? and Killing Time employ the tough-guy detective story conventions of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Suspects takes the form of the small-town police procedural. Regiment of Women and Nowhere are dystopian novels. Little Big Man is a parody of the frontier memoir and captivity narrative told by centenarian Jack Crabb, the lone survivor of George Armstrong Custer’s “Last Stand.” A sequel, The Return of Little Big Man, reveals that Jack faked his death so that he could tell his own story. In Arthur Rex, Berger reworks his material, partly in tribute to Mark Twain and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), by having the knights speak in modern slang and fall into sexual contretemps.

Orrie’s Story is a retelling of the Oresteian tragedy with a cast of decidedly unheroic fools from small-town America of the 1940’s. Robert Crews is likewise a reworking of a classic tale, in this case that of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), here a middle-aged, unsuccessful man who survives a plane crash in the wilderness.

Other novels present darker visions of human interactions. Being Invisible follows the misadventures of a schlemiel who suddenly discovers he has the ability to will his own physical disappearance. Changing the Past demonstrates the dubious possibilities of remaking one’s life to avoid pain and failure. The Houseguest is a mythic examination of the corrupting influence of power and authority, and Meeting Evil presents a nightmare vision of an ordinary man coming face to face with an embodiment of pure malevolence.

Although Berger’s novels seem to present a mimetically recognizable world, his own comments on his work emphasize their formal design and delight in language. In one interview, he said that in his novels he intended “to celebrate [a genre], to identify and applaud its glories.” Politics, history, and the novelist’s “reality” are far from his mind. Sneaky People, for example, seems to take place the first week of September, 1939, but there is not one word of the momentous events of that week.

Berger is fascinated with ironies of characterization; the reader is usually enlightened about the truth of a character, but the characters themselves persist in their mistaken notions. Jack Crabb, who is also Little Big Man, the Cheyenne Indian, repeatedly has difficulty convincing whites that he is one of them and Indians that he is their brother. The problem is one of identity, and Berger points out that it is not an easy one. Each of the famous personages introduced in Little Big Man–among them Kit Carson, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, and even Walt Whitman–is slightly different from the historical figure familiar to the reader. Berger’s characters are also significant for their complicated, often rich lives and capacities. Sneaky People, Neighbors, and The Houseguest provide fascinating examples of seemingly ordinary people living extravagant inner lives.

The complications of character in Berger’s novels often involve curious reversals of sex roles. Carlo Reinhart and wife Genevieve in Reinhart in Love and Vital Parts and Georgie Cornell in Regiment of Women present startling examples of the fluidity of sexual identities. The enigmatic Ramona in Neighbors is a continually mutable figure who turns temptress, uneducated rube, prescient seer, and soul guide. Berger’s characters are never certain of their fellow humans and thus find themselves in a morally dubious universe. The moral dimension of human existence is another long-standing concern that runs throughout Berger’s fiction.

Berger repeatedly insists that the central issue in each of his novels is that of style and that in preparing any work he always begins with a consideration of the language in which it will be written. He is an exacting stylist, which has led Max F. Schulz to remark that “Berger’s many styles represent a continuing celebration of the self-regenerative powers of language. He works at the extremities of the linguistic atlas, rehabilitating coinages worn out by time, homogenizing, and media overuse.”

BibliographyLandon, Brooks. Thomas Berger. Boston: Twayne, 1989. First book-length study of Berger draws from the author’s correspondence with Berger to support the thesis that the interpretation of Berger’s novels is the study of his style. Begins with a brief overview of Berger’s career and then analyzes, by conceptual grouping, Berger’s first fifteen novels.Lethem, Jonathan. Introduction to Meeting Evil, by Thomas Berger. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. Presents a brilliant analysis of Berger’s career, discussing his unique strengths as a writer and his place in American letters.Madden, David W. Critical Essays on Thomas Berger. New York: G. K. Hall, 1995. Solid collection includes a valuable overview of Berger criticism by the editor, a lengthy interview with Berger, and the text of Berger’s play Other People. Gerald Weales’s 1983 essay “Reinhart as Hero and Clown,” reprinted here, is perhaps still the best single discussion of the Reinhart books available.Malone, Michael. “Berger, Burlesque, and the Yearning for Comedy.” Studies in American Humor 2 (Spring, 1983): 20-32. One of the most instructive essays in the two-volume Studies in American Humor special issue on Berger, this piece offers a persuasive analysis of Berger’s complexity that also considers why his achievements have not been better celebrated. Malone claims that whatever the novel form, Berger writes comedy, as opposed to comic novels.Stypes, Aaron. “Thomas Berger and Sheer Incongruity.” South Dakota Review 32 (Winter, 1994): 34-43. An interesting discussion of Berger’s place in American literature and the sources of his comedy.Wallace, Jon. “A Murderous Clarity: A Reading of Thomas Berger’s Killing Time.” Philological Quarterly 68 (Winter, 1989): 101-114. Offers superb analysis of the philosophical implications of Berger’s use of sources in Killing Time. Wallace is one of the few critics to recognize the interpretive importance of Berger’s style.Wilde, Alan. “Acts of Definition: Or, Who Is Thomas Berger?” Arizona Quarterly 39 (Winter, 1983): 314-351. Instructive essay on Berger’s work offers a phenomenology that recognizes the inseparability for the author of the concepts of freedom and self-definition. Wilde finds in Berger’s novels, however, a “fear of otherness” that just as easily may be termed “fascination.”
Categories: Authors