When news came July 21 of the death of author Thomas Berger, many people — even those who love literature — probably said, "Who?"
That's a shame, although Berger might have raised an ironic eyebrow and smiled. A critically acclaimed and often bestselling novelist whose heyday spanned three decades and whose greatest novel became a classic movie, Berger stepped away from fame and lived a very private life for the last 30-plus years, although he continued to write — his 20th novel, Adventures of the Artificial Woman, was published in 2004. In his final years he had become so reclusive that news of his death, at age 89 on July 13, didn't become public until a week later.
Berger's 1984 novel The Feud was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. But what most people remember him for is his third novel, Little Big Man, published in 1964 and made into a movie, directed by Arthur Penn, in 1970. Set in the mid 19th century in the American West, it's the sprawling, picaresque story of Jack Crabb, a white child adopted by the Cheyenne after his family is massacred. Crabb, who narrates the story as a 121-year-old man, is a kind of Zelig of the Wild West whose career highlight is surviving the battle of the Little Big Horn.
The film, starring Dustin Hoffman as Crabb, is an exceptionally good adaptation of the novel. But, as is usually the case, the book is better, richer and smarter. Berger was essentially a satirist, and a superb one. He had a rare combination of gifts: elegantly savage wit and irresistible storytelling, a pairing that echoes the work of such writers as Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain.
Little Big Man the novel is not only a rollicking tale, told in Crabb's indelibly salty voice, but a deeply intelligent examination of revisionist history of the West and of the nature of history itself.
It is Berger's masterwork, but he wrote many other terrific novels as well. Many, such as Sneaky People and Neighbors, are sharp suburban satires. Others are witty takes on a wide range of genres, from the hard-boiled detective novel (Who Is Teddy Villanova?) and Utopian fiction (Regiment of Women) to Arthurian legend (Arthur Rex). He has influenced a number of contemporary novelists, notably Tom Perrotta and Jonathan Lethem, who had a 25-year correspondence with Berger but never met him in person.
I did meet Berger, in the early 1980s, when he came to speak at the University of South Florida. I was a graduate student in English, and after he spoke a group of friends and I spirited him away from his faculty chaperone for a bar crawl that did not end until dawn. Even though we were all drinking a fairly powerful concoction called a French 75, he remained a dazzling raconteur all night long.
That gift for skillful control of voice translated into his writing — whether he wrote about an aging Cheyenne chief or a used car salesman plotting his wife's murder or Sir Lancelot, Berger always captured tone and style impeccably.
Any of his books is well worth reading, but if you've never read Little Big Man, you owe it to yourself to do it now. And if you have, you don't need me to tell you it's worth reading again.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.