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Neighbors

Review

Neighbors

Originally published over 20 years ago and later made into a
successful film, NEIGHBORS is a comic novel that defies easy
categorization. Throughout his prolific career, Thomas Berger has
warped his readers' perceptions of what is normal, thus creating a
unique genre of paranoid fiction, replete with quotidian heroes and
random strangers walking a tight rope above calamity. This book is
no exception, as Berger plays ring leader to a cast of characters
whose behavior blurs the distinctions between paranoia and reality,
intention and action, friend and foe.
Over
the course of a single, sleepless night, Earl Keese, a suburban
Everyman, engages in self-defense or guerilla warfare (depending on
where your sympathies lie at any given time) with his new neighbors
(Harry and Ramona) who seem to threaten the very fabric of his
carefully constructed reality. One cannot help but sense that
Keese, like many of Franz Kafka's characters, is suddenly caught in
a world whose banality has become palpable, even violent. Ramona
and Harry are a brusque and conventionally mannerless pair whose
presence exposes Keese's closely guarded vulnerabilities while
galvanizing the latent sexual tension in his house. Indeed, sex is
an implied or foreshadowed weapon brandished by each of the
characters --- except Earl. Ramona, whose breasts connote "more of
rocketry than mammalia," is a seductress who alternatively
exhilarates and unnerves Keese: "How far would you go to avoid
humiliation? That's what I always think when I look at somebody
like you."
Throughout NEIGHBORS, Ramona teasingly deploys her weapons to
test Keese's limits. Harry, a blonde giant, menaces Keese with
surgical precision, becaus e his offenses, unlike Ramona's, are not
tempered by sexuality --- but amplified by it. He makes advances to
both of the women in Keese's life, his wife Enid and his college
age daughter Elaine. While this bothers Keese, it is their sympathy
for Harry that provokes tantrums of disbelief. Not only are they
oblivious to Harry's abrasiveness, but they endow him with
guru-like qualities while persistently chastising Keese's behavior.
In Keese's eyes, Harry is boorish, vulgar and just not very
neighborly. Yet, every once in a while, Harry manages to offset his
threatening behavior with seemingly unprovoked acts of compassion
that strike at Keese, who is deeply touched by any extension of
friendship, whether it is false or not. "You're an unusual fellow,
Harry. Every time I see you as a criminal, by another light you
look like a kind of benefactor." Distinguishing victims from their
assailants is fundamental to interpreting this bewildering and
extremely funny novel.
Once
Harry and Ramona invade Keese's cul de sac, preservation --- of
personal space, of personal dignity, and of life --- reclaims its
instinctual, even feral, relevance. Keese finds himself in a
situation where "he was somehow antagonizing the entire world
merely by trying to defend himself." Like an offended god on
Olympus, Berger relentlessly thrusts his characters into
increasingly tortuous situations where "chance encounters can be
brutal," and almost always are. Early in the novel Keese has
already had his limits severely tested. Ramona has made unsettling
advances toward him, while Harry has swindled him out of 32 dollars
and is getting on a little too well with Enid. To add to the chaos,
Earl has inadvertently sent Harry's car into a nearby creek and has
yet to tell anyone. We soon discover, after a semi-successful
attempt at extortion, that Ramona knows Earl's little secret and is
waiting for the perfect opportunity to humiliate Keese: "Isn't it
time, Earl, for a little confessing of your own?"
We
expect Ramona to make Keese squirm and to admit that he
accidentally wrecked Harry's car. Keese complies ably with the
squirming part and just when he is about to give his full
confession Ramona throws a curve ball, "He tried to rape me." How
is a reader supposed to react to this? The willing suspension of
disbelief, an essential part of our contract with the author, is
put through acrobatic paces because the brutality exceeds all
expectation. This scene is just the beginning of a burlesque
nightmare that includes numerous acts of physical violence, a
gunshot, and a house burning to the ground. With each barrage of
inferences and accusations we are left to wonder --- can this
really be happening? How much more absurdity will the characters
reasonably endure? How much more can we take? Reading is believing.
Fortunately, Berger's dexterous narrative constantly teases and
subverts our expectations, while never forgetting to make us laugh
(a little uneasily perhaps) at the same time. Underneath the
paranoid slapstick of NEIGHBORS lies a tightly constructed and
rigidly complex narrative that engages the reader on many
levels.
As
the story progresses, it becomes clear that Earl Keese's life has
been measured out with coffee spoons. Once Harry and Ramona disrupt
his prosaic existence, Keese too observes that his relationships
with the external world have been forged by convenience and endured
by habit. He soon begins to see Enid as a cloistered alcoholic,
while his blind adoration for his daughter fades quickly into
impatience as she is exposed as a petty thief. Indeed, there are a
few pages late in the novel where you just might think that you can
finally see where Berger has been leading you. Don't be so easily
fooled. The blurred distinctions linger until the very last page,
leaving many questions unanswered. The most intriguing of which is
to what degree we can rely on our senses. "Keese admitted to
himself that, very rarely, some outlandish vision of his might be
to some degree or even wholly authentic; but since he had no
standard of measurement he must, in self-preservation, consistently
reject the evidence of his eyes. In this basic way he was at odds
with the rest of humanity as to one of its incontestable truths:
seeing is believing." Yet in this dead end neighborhood,
appearances, or the discernible lack thereof, account for
everything. What really happens, who is to blame, and who is the
victim? With Earl Keese acting as our window on the cul de sac it
is difficult to know. In this way Berger's work demands closer
scrutiny. There is no standard of measurement.

Reviewed by Joel E. D. Wells on January 22, 2011

Neighbors
by Thomas Berger

  • Publication Date: September 1, 2000
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Zoland Books
  • ISBN-10: 1581950233
  • ISBN-13: 9781581950236