ARTHUR REX by Thomas Berger
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ARTHUR REX

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Berger's Arthurian cycle is not a put-on--at least not entirely so; Chaucer might have found it ""bitwixen ernest and game."" Like Who Is Teddy Villanova? and Little Big Man, it stands certain valorous traditions on their heads while implicitly acknowledging their continued power to move us. Berger has mostly followed Malory, but with abundant cutting-and-pasting that clarifies the connections between different episodes and brings other material (e.g., some of the late Middle English Gawaine romances) into a surprisingly tidy whole. The Arthurian worthies, given lavish imaginative rein, head off in all sorts of new-and-old directions. Beret's conscientious Arthur is guiltily aware of his own priggery; his Launcelot and Guinevere are an anguished failure and a first-class bail-breaker driven by defensive pride. Arthur dreams up the notion of knightly conduct (as opposed to just bashing people) as a holier-than-thou assuagement of his scruples about the invincibility of Excalibur against ""conventional weapons."" Yet over the years the ideals of the Round Table prove capable of transforming the brash Gawaine into a decent and reasonable person. If Berger's handling of characters and ideas reflects a genuine involvement, his style loudly proclaims ironic apartness in its extravagant burlesque of Malory, or rather Howard Pyle. ""Shut thine ancient meattrap!"" the ailing Uther Pendragon admonishes Sir Ulfin; Mordred and Morgan la Fey (two of Berger's most splendid creations) address each other in terms like ""Canst thou do better, little shit?"" At times one wishes Berger hadn't locked himself into this sort of thing, gloriously funny moments or no. But the japing prose-a pretty inflexible instrument in itself--is an essential weight in his tricky balancing of illusion and disillusion. In addition to providing a galloping Camelot of sheer fun, Arthur Rex turns out to be the first really astute reworking of the Arthurian story in decades, a gesture of great irreverence and homage to a realm in which all men ""lived and died by legend (and without it the world hath become a mean place).

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1978
Publisher: Delacorte