Tom Perrotta Hails Suburban Sendup 'Neighbors'
Call them buttonhole books, the ones you urge passionately on friends, colleagues and passersby. All readers have them — and so do writers. This summer, NPR.org talks with authors about their favorite buttonhole books in the weekly series "You Must Read This."
Thomas Berger's 1980 novel Neighbors gleefully topples all the artificial comforts of the suburban home. It's the simple story of what happens when an especially crude, chaos-prone and rather criminally minded couple — known only as Harry and Ramona — moves into the only other house in a cul-de-sac where archetypal suburban dad Earl Keese lords over his household. Over a deliriously sleepless weekend involving everything from kidnapping to assault with a deadly weapon, Earl comes to realize virtually nothing in his world is what it seemed.
Tom Perrotta, author of the widely praised 2003 suburban farce Little Children, appreciates Berger's antic tale of suburban collapse.
Q. You were a student of Thomas Berger's in college. How did that come about?
A. In my junior year, in 1981, I was lucky enough to be admitted into a writing class taught by the funniest serious writer in America. Most of my classmates knew Thomas Berger as the author of Little Big Man, which had been adapted into a terrific movie starring Dustin Hoffman. But I knew him as the author of Neighbors.
I can't recall how and when I initially discovered the book, but I do remember that it made me laugh so hard I actually fell off my bed. You can ask my mother. She came upstairs and asked if I was okay.
Q. Neighbors is more than a slapstick farce, though. Ramona and Harry, the new neighbors from hell, confront the complacent suburban dad Earl Keese with all sorts of mayhem — death threats, rape accusations and arson, to name but a few plot points. How does Berger manage to make us laugh at such grim material?
A. Well, there's something Kafkaesque about the deadpan way Berger proceeds with his story. He never winks at the reader and recounts the most outlandish actions in matter-of-fact, almost hypnotically precise language. A bald summary makes the novel sound over-the-top as, in fact, the unforgivably bad Belushi-Ackroyd film version of it was. But Berger's narrative is tightly controlled and grounded in the closely observed minutiae of suburban life.
Berger's flair, or should I say mania, for realistic description can't quite counteract the essential strangeness of the novel. Neighbors explodes every few pages with episodes of slapstick violence worthy of The Three Stooges: Earl and Harry attack each other on the flimsiest of pretexts, then immediately make up. At one point, Harry tries to strangle Earl with a garden hose: "Keese's eyeballs were ready to pop from their sockets, and his tongue was oozing from his pursed lips like toothpaste from a tube." Just moments later, however, the two men are happily washing the car: "Harry stopped chamoising and leaned against the car. 'Kind of nice to chew gum with a pal.'"
Q. How much of this behavioral schizophrenia is specific to Berger's vision of suburban life? Or is it something more simply linked to his view of human nature?
A. There's no question that Neighbors is a suburban novel that can stand alongside such classics of the genre as John Updike's Rabbit Redux and Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road. Ultimately, though, Neighbors seems to transcend history and geography in a way that these solider, more earthbound novels don't. Beneath the antic surface of his story, Berger seems to be making a larger philosophical point about the fragility of civilization itself and the stubborn persistence of our primitive impulses.
On its most basic level, Neighbors poses a timeless dilemma, a problem that must have regularly bedeviled our caveman ancestors on the savannah. It's the question the New World natives asked themselves upon glimpsing the Mayflower or the Santa Maria for the first time: What do we do with these new people? Do we feed them or kill them? The answer, according to Berger, is Both! Or, more precisely, We can't make up our minds! His characters can't quite decide if they're "civilized" human beings or Hobbesian "savages," because each identity seems just as "natural" as the other. No matter who we are or where we live, we still can't quite figure out if we're supposed to throw rocks at those strangers or invite them over for dinner.
Q. How much of the Thomas Berger you know comes through in this account of the perils of modern living?
A. Neighbors definitely reflects its author's air of perpetual wonderment. Every day, Berger would arrive in class chuckling about something that had happened on the way over, some confusion over parking regulations or an unexpectedly delightful phrase he'd encountered on a menu. Listening to him, you got the sense that every little thing you did — a trip to the supermarket, a simple home repair—could be an excellent comic misadventure if you just looked at it in the right way and had no expectations beyond the certainty that everything you did was doomed to go horribly and hilariously awry. So why not go ahead and enjoy it?
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