THE HOUSEGUEST by Thomas Berger


Email this review


In Neighbors (1980), one ordinary suburban guy was subtly terrorized by the escalating rudeness of his enigmatic new neighbors--and the results were hilarious, disturbing, effortlessly surreal: a landmark comic novel. Here, Berger recycles the petty-terrorism notion, with four victims instead of one--but this time the effect, despite flickers of devilish inspiration, is more strained and heavy-handed than bouyant. The Graves family--distinguished attorney Douglass (an incorrigible lecher), patrician Audrey (an alcoholic), their handsome son Bobby (a wimp), and new daughter-in-taw Lydia (nÉe Di Salvo. regrettably nouveau riche)--is complacently ensconced at the clan's isolated Long Island summer home. And everyone except Lydia is utterly delighted with ""perfect houseguest"" Chuck Burgoyne, a total stranger who's been in residence for a week. Suddenly, however, Chuck stops being ingratiating (whipping up meals, etc.) and starts being rude, unpleasant, downright threatening and combative. He flashes a gun, extorts money from Douglass, steals Audrey's cashmere sweaters, semi-rapes Lydia, and delivers sneering abuse--until even slow, self-deluding Bobby starts reacting. The family, seemingly held hostage (phone-lines cut, cars sabotaged), begins to fight back; Lydia leads several attempts to assassinate masterful Chuck--but later changes her mind, appalled by the Graves family's ""moral tackiness"" in condoning murder. Meanwhile, Chuck has enlisted swinish allies--from the local-yokel population (which has always resented the snobby summer folk). So finally a new status quo emerges--with Chuck as paid servant and Lydia as houseguest ful to Chuck for having ""helped her establish herself in this alien place."" On one level, then, with echoes of (among others) Pinter's The Servant, this sour fable of class-conflict. (Chuck calls the Graveses ""worthless parasites."") It tries to be a sort of Freudian, X-rated Tartuffe--with leering Chuck bringing out a the worst traits in his hypocritical hosts. But these didactic agendas weigh down the proceedings; the dark, slapsticky melodrama, with power-plays constantly reversing, is merely implausible and unpleasant, never truly nightmarish. And, above all, this shifty novel lacks the steady viewpoint of a hero/victim that gives most of Berger's best fiction such seductive focus.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1988
ISBN: 0743257944
Publisher: Little, Brown