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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Of Words and Letters

From the Bookshelf Dept.: In the mid-’70s, I adapted Thomas Berger’s novel Who Is Teddy Villanova? for radio, and it aired as a seven-part serial over WPKN-FM. This kicked off an correspondence with the writer, whom I count as a major influence on my own work. I was delighted when he agreed, back in 1991, to answer questions about Orrie’s Story, his latest novel, for a Metroland piece.


THOMAS BERGER HAS LONG shunned the spotlight often offered to writers, especially writers whose novels have been successfully plundered by Hollywood. Born and raised in Ohio, he has spent most of his later life in Hudson Valley towns. His third novel, Little Big Man, was written in the not-so-wide-open spaces near Nyack.

Thomas Berger
Berger's first two books introduced a character named Carlo Reinhart, who has since travelled through two more. Along with a new literary voice and a fresh look at the American experience, Berger's early works offered protagonists who typically were victims of oppressive circumstances and found whatever triumph they enjoyed by learning to reinterpret those circumstances.

Language itself becomes a vehicle of that interpretation, and all of Berger’s writing boasts a precision the author can turn comic or horrifying with deceptive ease. Many of his novels are characterized by an amusing wryness that reached a high point in The Feud, which narrowly lost a Pulitzer Prize bid to William Kennedy’s Ironweed.    

Orrie’s Story, Berger’s seventeenth novel, marks a change in this tradition, with storytelling itself a kind of central character. It plays another hand of a literary game the author has been dealing since Little Big Man presented its unpopular view (in a very popular book and movie) of frontier history as the reminiscence of an aged Indian-adopted scout. 1978’s Arthur Rex retold Malory’s classic in Shakespearean English fleshed out with Berger’s humorous sense of irony.

Set during the Second World War, Orrie’s Story dresses a classic tale in modern garb and proves both the timelessness of the original and the effectiveness of this device.

Critical of the journalist’s practice (he parodied it in a 1972 Esquire piece spoofing the Clifford Irving-Howard Hughes controversy), Berger gives interviews only by letter and graciously replied to several questions. Explaining that Orrie’s Story originated as a deliberate effort to retell the Oresteia in 20th-century terms, he went on to describe the setting of the novel in terms of The Feud and Sneaky People, which also take place in America’s recent past.

The Feud and Sneaky People are set in the Middle West in the 1930's,” he writes, “and the language of each indicates that. I am myself a product of that place and time: I was born in the 1920's, but most of my remembered childhood concerns the 30's. Orrie’s Story, on the other hand, is set in 1945 just after the end of World War II, quite another kind of time to those of us who are experienced in eras. Also, the setting of Orrie’s Story is supposed to be, vaguely, the Hudson Valley (there are references to the not too distant seashore, for example), and that’s where I have lived most of my adult life.”

A darker nature distinguishes his new novel from other recent books. Berger long has been regarded as a humorous writer, and sought to side-step what he considers an incorrect perception.

“I made an intentional effort to avoid anything that could be called comedy. I have never intended to be funny and have always disliked the label of 'comic novelist,’ which has been applied to me by the humorless half-literates who read only to confirm received ideas. Orrie’s Story goes out of its way to be grim. Nevertheless, the anonymous buffoon who wrote the prepublication review for Publishers Weekly denounced it as an example of unsuccessful black comedy!”

No matter what kind of voice he adopts, Berger’s literary style is sparkles with an economic use of language to tap the most evocative nuggets of meaning from the component words. Leanness and economy contribute to that power along with an elegant sense of rhythm. Listen:

Orrie did not know what he should feel with regard to his father’s death. He had not seen or heard from the man in four years: the four years, furthermore, in which he himself had gone from child to adult and now taken the first step in the process of leaving home forever. It could be said without too much exaggeration that he had long since lost his male parent, that this recent event was anticlimactic, that though he might never have formulated it in conscious thought, he had never expected to see his father again anyway.
This is writing meant to be read aloud, a story told in a dense, exciting language with the dramatic impetus native to good gods-and-goddess lore. Asked how he developed the voice used in this book, Berger explained, “The language of Orrie’s Story was invented by me. The dialogue is not intended to have the historical accuracy of the novels concerning the 1930's Midwest.”

The coming-of-age story is a vital part of the American literary tradition and is very much at the core of Orrie’s story. No curse of the House of Atreus drives him to his deed, no dark Furies pursue him for years afterward. Having taken what he needs from the Oresteia, Berger concentrates on designing and developing a narrative that requires no knowledge of its antecedent for proper enjoyment.

Don’t hunger for more of the same, however. “There will be no sequel to Orrie’s Story,” explains Berger. “Eventually there may be a final Reinhart book.”

An old biographical sketch quotes the author as saying that he turned to writing in order to invent a universe that will be more satisfying than what he sees around himself. Does this still work?

“Indeed it does still work, which is all to the good, for by now I no longer have a choice as to how I can survive: it’s either this way or nothing.”

Berger also is an underproduced playwright who looks back fondly at his brief involvement in the theater. He also described with excitement the process of watching a movie production company “burn” a house for a key scene in the adaptation of his novel Neighbors. But film and theater, as he explains, aren’t areas he aggressively pursues.

“I have written several plays, one of which was performed, twenty years ago, at the Berkshire Theatre Festival and was supposed to go on to Broadway, but the producer could not raise the money, and my career as a playwright ended at that point. I had to return to novels to make a living. But I greatly enjoyed my brief experience in the theater.

“As to screenwriting, I have never had the least urge to do any and have turned down many inquiries as to my availability for such jobs, including one from Alfred Hitchcock. Only once did I make an exception: my friend Milos Forman and I collaborated on a screenplay based on my Vital Parts. He provided all the ideas, and I wrote all of the text. But we never completed the script, and the picture has never been made.”

It seemed fitting to conclude the epistolary interview with a question based on a subtle evolution in the characteristic of his work. Being Invisible and Changing the Past, which immediately preceded Orrie’s Story, suggested some fantastic methods of controlling one’s environment, and both left their protagonists better able to cope with daily life through those experiences. Which suggested that, despite the treachery and terror that runs through a lot of Berger’s work, he is essentially an optimist. Is he really as hopeful as all that?

“It is keen of you to make that recognition,” he replied. “Only recently did I do so myself. I had always assumed I believed the worst, but that was before I had lived sufficiently long to understand that hopelessness is the ultimate sentimentality.”

Orrie’s Story
By Thomas Berger
Little, Brown and Company, 276 pp, $18.95

Metroland Magazine, Feb. 28, 1991

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