The distinguished postwar American novelist Thomas Berger died on July 13, 2014 in Nyack, New York. As this was a great loss for American letters in the past year, I wanted to post an entry on this very unique and gifted writer, who will be featured in the future on this blog.
Berger was a native of Lockland, Ohio, an old mill town not far from the city limits of Cincinnati. He was born on July 20, 1924. He attended the Lockland schools and later Miami University in Oxford, Ohio before enlisting in the U.S. Army and serving in the Medical Corps during World War II. Following the war, he attended the University of Cincinnati, graduating with honors, and pursued graduate studies at Columbia. He left grad school and took jobs as a librarian, summary writer for the New York Times Index and freelance copy editor while he wrote.
His first novel was Crazy In Berlin, published in 1958, the first of four novels featuring Carlos Reinhart, an Everyman stumbling through the twentieth century. But what eventually put Berger on the map was his 1964 novel Little Big Man, later adapted for the screen in 1970 in a film directed by Arthur Penn and starring Dustin Hoffman. The book had been in a kind of limbo since publication, but the film increased interest in the novel and helped bring greater attention to Berger. It is safe to say this book is a major work of postwar American literature. It’s protagonist, Jack Crabb, is a 111-year old frontiersman telling his story to a “man of letters.” Crabb, who claims to be the only survivor of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, claims all kinds of adventures in the old west, and has crossed paths with or known many of its major figures, such as George Custer and Wild Bill Hickok.
There are questions raised in the book as to whether Crabb’s narrative is genuine, and the book has also been seen as an examination of American myth and history, a commentary of the art of storytelling, and a send-up of American literary treatments of the west. It was followed many years later by a sequel: The Return of Little Big Man (1999).
Berger wrote a total of twenty-three novels. One of the hallmarks of his work is the use of genre. Many of his novels take the form of a particular genre—the police procedural, private eye pulp fiction, Arthurian legend, survival narrative, science fiction—but often challenge genre conventions as the narrative unfolds and Berger’s unique fictional universe takes shape. Many of his novels concern issues of freedom, authority, and morality. Another theme of Berger’s is how our use of language shapes our perceptions of reality.
Berger also examines the darkness underlying everyday relationships among people. Suburban existence is a hotbed of paranoia, frustration, and anarchy. For example, in his 1980 novel Neighbors, made into a movie with John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd, a dull middle class businessman finds his life shaken up with the arrival of new neighbors and begins questioning everything around him, including the behavior of his wife and daughter.
Berger wrote two novels set in the Midwest of the 1930s, which show his skill at capturing the vernacular and feel of the times while also exploring his themes of conflict and alienation. An argument over an unlit cigar near a section of varnish in a hardware store sets off conflicts in a community in his novel The Feud (1983). In his 1975 novel Sneaky People, a used car salesman with a mistress hires another man to kill his wife. Although these novels have comic elements, Berger always, with good reason, resisted the label of “comic novelist.” Serious elements and themes, especially moral decisions, run throughout his work.
In addition to his novels, Berger wrote four plays, some short fiction, and was for a brief time a film columnist for Esquire in the early 1970s. He is survived by his wife, the artist Jeanne Redpath Berger. The couple had no children.
Some day in the future, when we can get a better handle on the American literary history of the twentieth century, I think we will see more clearly what a lot of writers, critics, and devoted readers have been saying for decades: Berger is one of the towering novelists of postwar America.
Understanding Thomas Berger by Brooks Landon. University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, 2009.
New York Times obituary for Thomas Berger by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and William McDonald, July 21, 2014.