REINHART'S WOMEN by Thomas Berger
Kirkus Star


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Don't let that title fool you: Berger's Carl Reinhart (Crazy in Berlin, Reinhart in Love, Vital Parts) hasn't suddenly turned into the Casanova hero of an amorous picaresque. No, if anything, Reinhart's libido is at lower ebb than ever here: in his thickish mid-50s, divorced for ten years, he lives as a quasi-househusband in a midwestern hi-rise with breadwinning daughter Winona (formerly obese, now a sleek model). . . and he has learned that ""cooking was the only thing in life he had ever done well."" A bit of sex-role reversal? Of course. And in the hilarious, amazingly economical opening chapters, Berger--again using poor Reinhart as the straight man in an up-to-date US-lifestyle vaudeville--gives the already loaded situation a sly, full twist: Reinhart invites Grace Greenwood, a 40-ish new acquaintance, over for gourmet lunch, only to discover that she is Winona's lesbian lover! Reinhart, appalled, tries to react nicely; his son Blaine, now transformed from the swinish hippie of Vital Parts into a swinish stockbroker, is less cool ("". . . next she'll fall in love with some other female, maybe even a little child. My God, think of that, my sister trailing a Campfire Girl into the park!""); and Blaine tries to relocate his jobless dad to a cult-farm commune--where, as it happens, the guru-leader desperately depends on take-out orders from MacDonald's. But Reinhart does have a job now, thanks to Grace Greenwood: demonstrating Moo Paris Instant Crepe Suzette Mix in a supermarket, along with raunchy spiel-er Helen. And, despite some bizarre distractions--seduction by Helen at Al's Motel (her disabled husband is Al), a surprise visit from unhinged ex-wife Genevieve (one of modern fiction's most funny/agonizing post-marital encounters), and slapstick appearances by Blaine's alcoholic, vomiting, semi-comatose wife Mercer--Reinhart achieves real success: his three-minute spot as guest chef on a local-TV morning show is suddenly extended to 15 minutes (due to the offstage death of a has-been movie-star), and witty ""Chef Carlo"" is a hit. After this strangely exhilarating sequence, however, Reinhart's adventures (befriending a bedraggled diner-owner, romancing a dim but appealing younger woman) become merely charming--without the edgy drive and realer-than-real sharpness of the book's first half. So readers may wonder: is Berger--who has become our greatest living comic novelist largely by distilling (more finely with each decade)a gloriously uncompromised savagery--allowing Reinhart to get mellow? Well, maybe just a little; and there are moments here--Reinhart's childlike delight in the minutiae of cooking, Reinhart's banter with his bratty grandsons--which are downright endearing. But if this arguably misogynistic novel lacks the manic zest of Neighbors (in which a Reinhart-like hero swirled in 100-proof Berger-rage), it again demonstrates Berger's unique ability to turn the shifting social landscape of middle-class America into a kind of epic low comedy: rounder than satire, more dangerously real than farce, and--for all its shrewd glances at trends and customs--exuberantly primal.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1981
Publisher: Delacorte