CHANGING THE PAST by Thomas Berger


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With this baleful look at identity-switching, Berger is seeking to put his own spin on a familiar form of speculative fiction, as he did in a companion piece, Being Invisible (1087). Sheltering from a rainstorm in a city doorway, Walter Hunsicker is given the opportunity to change his past by a mysterious stranger. With his happy marriage and wonderful son, not to mention his cautious, stoic nature, the middle-aged Hunsicker, a publishing copy-editor, would hardly seem an ideal candidate for the experiment, though when pressed he admits that his family is ""really my sole accomplishment."" Emboldened by the knowledge that he can always revert to his original self, Hunsicker dallies with the idea of inherited wealth and sexual access, only to find that his new persona--Jack Kellog--is both satyr and slumlord. ""Everything in existence is consequential,"" says the stranger; ""you have to take the package."" (Which explains why he cannot save the life of Waiter's son, now revealed to be dying of AIDS.) Hunsicker tries out as three other Kellogs: a fat slob of a stand-up comic, a sometimes successful but always unattractive show-biz type; a writer, less talented and more reprehensible than the comic; and a smooth-as-silk ""psychologist"" who dispenses advice on his hugely successful call-in radio show. Finally, understanding that none of the above could serve as ""marionettes of wish-fulfillment fantasies,"" and that ""life is taking your medicine,"" Walter rejoins his wife in a mood that is tender, even serene, as he accepts that his dying son's life has been a triumph of style and substance. This starts promisingly: another Berger protagonist, we figure, is to be put through the wringer. But then Hunsicker recedes, and the various Kellog lives are recounted with an uncharacteristic flatness. As in any Berger, there are numerous incidental pleasures, but his marvelous instinct for mordant comedy too often seems thwarted by his point-making need to have each alternate life run its barren course, making this the most subdued of his recent works.

Pub Date: Sept. 12th, 1989
Publisher: Little, Brown