This trim, mordant 22nd by the author forever identified with his classic Little Big Man (1964) is one more of the surprises that have cropped up throughout Berger’s matchless 50-year career.
It’s another tale of urban personal and sexual conflict and misadventure, executed with the precision that distinguishes such deadpan black-comic masterpieces as Sneaky People, Neighbors, and The Houseguest. Berger’s protagonist is Roy(alton) Courtwright, a mid-30s bachelor of independent means who also runs a vintage car dealership, and indulges “an enjoyable, relatively risk-free, and intentionally harmless way of life” that includes numerous friendly sexual conquests. Roy’s opposite in every way is his longtime friend Sam Grandy, an obese couch potato who plays investment games on the Internet, while his many appetites (he’s a collector, while Roy is a doer, and giver) are supported by his energetic wife Kristin, a bank manager who also finds time to whip up superb gourmet meals. The plot exfoliates smoothly from this simple premise, as Roy’s affability brings him intimately close to Kristin when Sam is hospitalized with a heart attack. Then things get weird. The divorcée who’s Roy’s current lover is murdered by her suicidal ex. Coincidental acquaintances involve Roy awkwardly with a tough-broad nurse and an overeager coed, and bring him to the brink of liaisons with a policeman’s hardworking wife and even Roy’s matronly secretary Margaret Forsythe (who’s actually the voice of his bewildered conscience). No other writer can build a symphony of seriocomic confusion with such a sure touch. Roy’s innocently intended emotional and sexual vacillations are, magically, made bizarre, hilarious, and enormously moving. Berger’s terrific plot takes several unforeseen and unsettling turns en route to its savage dénouement. And it’s capped by an absolute killer of a final sentence.
Nobody writes them like Thomas Berger. Not to be missed.