by Thomas Berger ‧ RELEASE DATE: April 4, 1980
After playing quite nimbly with a couple of spoofable genres (detective stories in Who Is Teddy Villanova?, courtly epic in Arthur Rex), Berger now returns to middle-class America with a comic nightmare-book that has the audacious relentlessness and the naked, joyful aggression found only in those old slapstick vaudeville routines--you know, the ones where somebody keeps getting hit on the head with a bladder. Here that somebody is Earl Keese, 49 and fattish, an ordinary fellow living with wife Enid in country-ish outer suburbia. Well, perhaps not all that ordinary; we're immediately told that Earl has this habit of seeing things slightly awry: ""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). . . or a brazen pervert blowing him a kiss from the rear window of a bus (side of sleeping workingman's face, propped on hand)."" Thus, Earl's stability is already suspect when odd things start happening to him on the evening of the day that new neighbors--Harry and Ramona and their wolfhound Baby--move in next door. Big, handsome Harry and slinky, turbaned Ramona begin wandering in and out of Earl's house; Earl invites them to dinner, forgetting that there's no food in the house. So a tense duel over the securing of takeout food ensues: Harry behaves outrageously (lying, gypping, bullying), Earl strains for courtesy, Harry tricks Earl, and Earl tries to trick him back--but overdoes it (he sends Harry's car careening down the hill into a creek). And so it goes through the night, as unpredictable Harry and Ramona shower abuse on Earl (insults, blackmail, false accusations of bisexual assaults) while Earl alternately tries friendliness and vengeance (he locks them in the basement). And when Earl's daughter Elaine suddenly appears (apparently expelled from college for thieving), the mayhem escalates: Earl punches Harry, Harry forces Earl to drink from a dirty cup (at gunpoint), Ramona occupies Earl's bedroom (and maybe Earl's wife too), someone burns down Harry's house--and, after a final big takeout-food meal, Ramona and Harry persuade disoriented Earl to drive off with them into the unknown. In other words, this is one weird book, folks. A savage send-up of common courtesies. A fantasia on middle-class paranoia. And, perhaps above all, a lesson in how a comic master can make the same joke over and over (here, the explosions of aggression) and get a big laugh every time. Even without much shaping or sense of pace--it's more a long skit than a well-made novel--a harrowing and hilarious triumph.
Pub Date: April 4, 1980
Page Count: -
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1980
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