By Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and William McDonald
Thomas Berger, the reclusive and bitingly satirical novelist who explored the myths of the American West in “Little Big Man” and the mores of 20th-century middle-class society in a shelf of other well-received books, died on July 13 in Nyack, N.Y. He was 89.
His agent, Cristina Concepcion, said she learned of his death, at Nyack Hospital, on Monday. Mr. Berger lived in Grand View, a village in Rockland County, N.Y., where he had remained fiercely protective of his privacy.
Mr. Berger fell into that category of novelists whose work is admired by critics, devoured by devoted readers and even assigned in modern American literature classes but who owe much of their popularity to Hollywood. “Little Big Man,” published in 1964, is widely known for Arthur Penn’s film adaptation, released in 1970, starring Dustin Hoffman as the protagonist, Jack Crabb.
The novel, told in Crabb’s voice at the age of 111, recounts his life on the Great Plains as an adopted Cheyenne and makes the claim that he was the only white survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. But Mr. Berger’s body of work was far broader than that, and it earned him a reputation as an American original, if an underrecognized one. The author and scholar Thomas R. Edwards, writing in The New York Times Book Review in 1980, called him “one of our most intelligent, witty and independent-minded writers.” “Our failure to read and discuss him,” Mr. Edwards added, “is a national disgrace.”
To many critics, “Little Big Man” was Mr. Berger’s best novel and a worthy addition to the American canon. (The Dial Press plans a 50th-anniversary trade paperback edition this year.) “Few creative works of post-Civil War America have had as much fiber and blood of the national experience in them,” the historian and novelist Frederick Turner wrote in The Nation in 1977.
Brooks Landon, Mr. Berger’s biographer, placed “Little Big Man” in a tradition of American frontier literature begun by James Fenimore Cooper. Henry Miller heard echoes of Mark Twain in it.
Historical fiction was just one genre that the restless Mr. Berger embraced. He took on the horror novel in “Killing Time” (1967) and the pulp detective story in “Who Is Teddy Villanova?” (1977). He ventured into science fiction (and Middle American sexual fantasy) with “Adventures of the Artificial Woman” (2004); utopian fiction with “Regiment of Women” (1973), in which men have surrendered their grip on the world; and the survival saga in “Robert Crews” (1994), an updating of “Robinson Crusoe.” He revisited the western, and his best-known character, in “The Return of Little Big Man” (1999).
The classics were also fodder. He dipped into the Camelot myth in “Arthur Rex: A Legendary Novel” (1978) and Greek tragedy in “Orrie’s Story” (1990), a replay of the Oresteian trilogy. At other times, he reworked popular fantasies: “Being Invisible” (1987), in which the protagonist has the power to disappear from sight at will, and “Changing the Past” (1989), in which a man gets to go back in time to the forks in his road and take the other path.
If Mr. Berger had a literary mission, it was to mine the anarchic paranoia that he found underlying American middle-class life. “Sneaky People,” from 1975, chronicles three hectic days in the life of a used-car salesman, a “family man” who keeps a mistress and hires a car washer to kill his phlegmatic wife. “Neighbors” (1980) records a nightmarish day in suburbia that parodies the rituals of neighborliness, among them competitiveness, bonhomie (false and otherwise) and a striving for civility in the face of a creeping conviction that the people across the street are barbarians. (“Neighbors” was made into a 1981 movie starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, one of four film adaptations of Berger books.)
In these and other novels — “The Houseguest” (1988), “Meeting Evil” (1992), “Suspects” (1996) and “Best Friends” (2003) — everyday social encounters quickly disintegrate into Kafkaesque comic horrors.
“It was Kafka who taught me that at any moment banality might turn sinister, for existence was not meant to be unfailingly genial,” Mr. Berger told the critic Richard Schickel in a rare interview in 1980, published in The New York Times. He gave expression to that view in “The Feud” (1983), which he set in the American Midwest in the 1930s. In this tale, a misunderstanding over the fire hazard posed by an unlit cigar devolves into a slapstick battle between two communities that somehow manages to convey a convincing portrait of the mean Depression years.
“The Feud” was the top recommendation of the fiction jury for the 1984 Pulitzer Prize, but it was passed over by the Pulitzer board in favor of William Kennedy’s Depression-era novel “Ironweed,” which had also been cited by the jury.
Before then, Mr. Berger’s focus had mainly been on contemporary American life, in all its sprawling disorder, in a series of books that trace the growth of a woebegone character (and perhaps alter ego) named Carl, né Carlo, Reinhart. The books — “Crazy in Berlin” (1958), “Reinhart in Love” (1962), “Vital Parts” (1970) and “Reinhart’s Women” (1981) — follow Reinhart from his bewildered youth as a soldier in Berlin to his mellower middle age as a serious cook.
Reinhart is “representative of the unrepresented,” the cultural critic Benjamin DeMott wrote in The Times in 1981. “We’re talking screw-ups, frankly,” he continued. “Chaps who, while seldom dropped from the lineup, continually whiff, in all senses, in the game of life.”
But Reinhart’s existence is not without meaning. “Possibly the simple secret of Reinhart’s value is just this: The fellow has hunkered down here in the U.S. of A.,” Mr. DeMott went on. “He’s stuck it. He is a man of no standing growing up stunted, naturally, blowing it in a thousand helpless ways, dreaming on into late middle age of the coup that will turn him overnight into Somebody, knowing it’s not in the cards, knowing (in totally unsystematic fashion) that They, the Managers, have more or less stolen his humanity, yet working hard to avoid being needlessly cruel to anyone.”
Of all Mr. Berger’s characters, none is as indelible as the Indian scout and adopted Cheyenne Jack Crabb. His homespun but shrewd colloquial voice drives the narrative of “Little Big Man.”
In his early years, Crabb is indoctrinated into the ways of Indians, including their diet.
“The antelope chunks weren’t too well done,” he says. “Indians don’t have a prejudice against grease, on the one hand; and on the other, they weren’t given in those days to using salt. Along with the meat was some chokecherries all cooked to a mush, and a root or two that didn’t have a taste until you swallowed it and it fell all the way to your belly and gave off the aftereffect of choking on sand.”
But he befriends his captors. “In later years I grew greatly fond of Old Lodge Skins,” he says of one. “He had more bad luck than any human being I have ever known, red or white, and you can’t beat that for making a man likable.”
Thomas Louis Berger was born in Cincinnati on July 20, 1924, the son of Thomas Charles Berger, the business manager of a public school system near Cincinnati, and the former Mildred Bubbe. Both parents loved to read, and Thomas’s mother encouraged him to adopt the habit.
After graduating from Lockland High School in Cincinnati in 1942, he enrolled at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and found he did not like it. So he enlisted in the Army, which put him in the Medical Corps and sent him to England and Germany as World War II raged.
After the war, he enrolled at the University of Cincinnati, earned his baccalaureate degree there with honors in 1948 and pursued graduate work in English at Columbia University until 1951, when he abandoned work on his thesis, on George Orwell. In the meantime he married. His wife, Jeanne Redpath Berger, a painter, is his only immediate survivor.
After Columbia, he held jobs as a librarian at the Tamiment Institute and Library (formerly the Rand School for Social Science) in New York and as a summary writer for The New York Times Index.
In the early 1950s, Mr. Berger moved from New York City to Rockland County, where he scraped by as a freelance copy editor and worked on his first novel, “Crazy in Berlin.” Writing the book took four years, in part because he had discarded the original manuscript after two and a half years and begun again.
For a time, Mr. Berger thrived on literary sociability. Writers, editors and publishers frequently gathered around the dinner table at his home. But he became reclusive, Mr. Schickel wrote in his 1980 article in The Times, to an extent that not even his publisher or his literary agent knew how to get in touch with him.
Mr. Schickel sustained his friendship with Mr. Berger by mail and was sworn to secrecy about his whereabouts. In his interview with Mr. Schickel, Mr. Berger unburdened himself of his disdain for the New York literary scene and his weariness of everyday living, saying, “Real life is unbearable to me unless I can escape from it into fiction.”
He was more sanguine about his craft:
“Why does one write? Because it isn’t there! Unlike Everest and other celebrated eminences. Beginners sometime ask me how a novel is written, the answer to which is: Any way at all. One knows only when it is finished, and then if one is at all serious, he will never do it the same way again.”
He concluded: “I should like the reader to be aware that a book of mine is written in the English language, which I love with all my heart and write to the best of my ability and with the most honorable of intentions — which is to say, I am peddling no quackery, masking no intent to tyrannize, and asking nobody’s pity. (I suspect that I am trying to save my own soul, but that’s nobody else’s business.)”