Tom Perrotta Hails Suburban Sendup 'Neighbors'

Neighbors, by Thomas Berger

hide captionScroll down to read an excerpt of Neighbors.

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Tom Perrotta

Tom Perrotta has made satirical sport of the mallscape of outer New Jersey, the misadventures of struggling rock bands and the casual brutalities of Ivy League college life. His most recent novel, Little Children (2003), offers affectionate portraits of suburban adulterers trapped in the dying throes of their arrested adolescence. He is, in short, a worthy student indeed of Thomas Berger and his work. Perrotta's novel Election was adapted into a 1999 movie of the same name.

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?

Excerpt: 'Neighbors'

IT would have been nice,” said Earl to himself as much as to the wife who sat across the coffee table from him, “to have asked them over for a drink.”

“We can certainly do that tomorrow,” said Enid. “Nothing is really lost.”

“But of course tomorrow won’t be the day they moved in, will it?”

Keese reflectively sipped his transparent wine. “I find that if something is done when it should be done, it is not forgotten. Still, I suppose it’s no tragedy. We could probably get away with giving them no formal welcome whatever. It’s scarcely a true obligation.”

“You mean, like giving food to a starving person?”

“Exactly,” said Keese. He rose and headed for the kitchen. While passing through the dining room, which was papered in a pale-gold figure, he bent slightly so that he could see, under the long valance and over the window-mounted greenhouse, into the yard next door. Despite what he believed he saw he did not break his stride. In the kitchen he looked again: it was a large white dog, in fact a wolfhound, not a naked human being on all fours.

Were Keese to accept the literal witness of his eyes, his life would have been of quite another character, perhaps catastrophic, for outlandish illusions were, if not habitual with him, then at least none too rare for that sort of thing. Perhaps a half-dozen times a year he thought he saw such phenomena as George Washington urinating against the wheel of a parked car (actually an old lady bent over a cane), a nun run amok in the middle of an intersection (policeman directing traffic), a rat of record proportions (an abandoned football), or a brazen pervert blowing him a kiss from the rear window of a bus (side of sleeping workingman’s face, propped on hand).

This strange malady or gift had come upon Keese with adolescence. Never had he been duped by it. Indeed, the only inconvenience it had brought him had been by reason of the unusual skepticism it had engendered. On occasion reality did take a bizarre turn: there were persons who kept pet pythons, which escaped and were subsequently discovered sleeping peacefully at a drive-in movie three miles from home. If Keese saw such a phenomenon he assumed it was the usual illusion. He had doubted his eyes when seeing a nude fat man ascend the front steps of a public building. But this man had been real, and a rearview photo of him appeared in next morning’s newspaper. (He had eluded the police, and his motive remained obscure.)

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.

He now opened the refrigerator and found the bottle of wine, which lay horizontal. As he had feared, it was leaking at the cork, and a little pool had formed on the lid of the crisper below. While wrinkling his nose at this he heard a tapping at the glass of the back door. Pleased to be so distracted, he straightened himself and went in response. While on this route he expected to view the caller through the large clear pane of the door-glass, from which furthermore the curtains had been temporarily removed for laundering. But he saw no one until he reached and opened the door, and then he espied the wolfhound, some eight feet off and loping. He supposed that the animal could have done the tapping: no other candidate was, at any rate, in evidence.

He took the bottle of wine to the living room.

“They must have a dog,” he said to Enid.

“That could be bad news,” his wife replied, placing her stemmed glass judiciously on the coffee table. For a number of years now Keese had observed his wife only by means of what she did: that is to say, he saw the actor only through the action. She was invisible to him when motionless.

“Well, let’s hope not,” said he, making a wry toss of the chin and elbowing an imaginary companion.

Enid stood up. “I imagine that some dinner wouldn’t be amiss.”

“At this juncture,” said Keese, completing the old family-phrase, the origins of which had been mislaid: some movie or play of twenty years before.

Normally a tall woman, Enid looked markedly larger than usual, but dwindled to her usual size as she left the room. Keese realized that the sofa, where he sat now, was subtly lower than the chair he generally used at this time of day. Not only did he see reality from a somewhat less favorable situation, but the thickness of his middle body knew an unpleasant pressure from his belt buckle. Being alone in the room, he had no reason to suppress a tendency towards extravagance, and making a hideous expression, he positively hurled himself erect.

He was heading for his habitual chair, in which, by contrast to its thick upholstery, he felt thinner, when the doorbell, a dull gong, sounded. Keese was now sufficiently old (viz., forty-nine) to hear as ominous all summonses for which he had not been furnished with advance warning, and he was especially dubious about any that came in those few hours which constituted dinnertime for persons of his sort.

He went apprehensively to the door, opened it partially, and exposed to the caller a diagonal view of the entrance hall of his home as well as about four-fifths of himself, keeping a forearm and a calf concealed and readied for leverage if needed.

For a very brief instant, looking headwards as he was, he could not identify the person by sex, for he saw a turban and under it a face which though not that of an East Indian was colored almost olive. It wore no make-up, and while the skin was flawless the features were not so delicate as to require a feminine designation.

But then Keese saw the two remarkable cones that projected themselves from her thorax. Though beneath the glistening, hardfinished blouse of oysterish synthetic they connoted more of rocketry than mammalia, once he had identified her sex he was no longer in doubt as to his own style.

“Hello,” said he, showing a pleasant face, “and what may I do for you?”

“Anything you like,” said the person on his doorstep. In age she had apparently just crossed Keese’s arbitrary line between girl and young woman. He had not been prepared for her literalization of his greeting, which was a piece of standard usage and not a cliche to be

derided. Nevertheless, with his bias towards a creature of her sex and years, he decided that he was himself at fault and he listened smilingly to the punch line which completed her opening speech: “The problem is what you want in return.”

Having made her jest, she glowered momentarily and then produced the sort of laugh which seen on silent film would suggest by its physical violence that the original had been deafening, but in point of fact very little sound was heard. Her teeth were huge.

Keese fell back a centimeter in mock horror, with an appropriate flash of palms. “Miss, I assure you my intentions are honorable.” He liked nothing better than such banter.

But the young woman seemed suddenly to show anxiety. Staring fearfully at him, she said: “I’m Ramona.” Her next statement was almost a question. “I moved in next door?”

Abruptly disenchanted, Keese knew an urge to reply: “How should I know? Why aren’t you certain?” But of course he did not; he was never sardonic with ladies newly met. “Welcome to the neighborhood,” he said instead. “We were just talking about inviting you over for a drink—and decided against it only because we thought you’d probably be exhausted today. But come in, come in.”

He did a little uncertain dance at this point, from threshold to top step and back. The problem was to hold the screen door open for her entrance and yet allow her sufficient space in which to move. Keese was no sylph. There was a further complication in that Ramona seemed oblivious to his effort: the simple thing would have been for her to catch the screen door against her outer wrist once he had thrown it open; thus he could have retreated into the hallway as she entered.

But she took no hand in her own entrance, and stretching to widen the route of ingress, he was forced to lower his elevation by one step. She raked him with her breasts as they passed: despite appearances, those cones were yielding and real, and it was quite the most exhilarating encounter with an unknown woman that Keese had had in time out of memory.

Excerpted from Neighbors by Thomas Berger. Copyright © 1980, Thomas Berger. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.

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