Thomas Berger, author of ‘Little Big Man’ and other novels, dies at 89


Thomas Berger in the 1980s. (Jerry Bauer)
July 22

Thomas Berger, a novelist of protean abilities who wrote crime stories, science fiction and chronicles of Middle America but was best known for “Little Big Man,” a rollicking tale of the Old West narrated by a spirited centenarian, died July 13 at a hospital in Nyack, N.Y.

His agent, Cristina Concepcion, confirmed his death but did not know the cause. The reclusive ­author, who lived in Grand View-on-Hudson, N.Y., and had seldom been seen in public in decades, died one week before his 90th birthday.

Mr. Berger explored a different literary genre almost every time he published one of his 23 novels. He achieved lasting renown for his picaresque 1964 western, “Little Big Man,” which was made into a 1970 film starring Dustin Hoffman as Mr. Berger’s unforgettable Jack Crabb.

Departing from the standard good-guys-and-bad-guys formula of westerns, Mr. Berger created a character who embodied all the best — and worst — qualities of America and the West. Crabb had been taken into the Cheyenne tribe as a boy of 10, trained as a warrior and lived a raucous life thereafter, tenuously balanced between the Indian world and the white.

“Little Big Man” — the title was the Cheyennes’ nickname for the diminutive but scrappy Crabb — consists of his reminiscences as a cranky but good-humored 111-year-old.

“Jack Crabb is a wonderfully salty and real person, tough, cynical, courageous, unscrupulous, dishonest,” critic Orville Prescott wrote in the New York Times in 1964. “In his time he had been a Cheyenne warrior, a gold prospector, a wagon driver and wagon master, a mule skinner, a drunk, a professional buffalo hunter, a professional gambler, a gun fighter and scout for the Seventh Cavalry, commanded by George Armstrong Custer.”

The book was not an immediate bestseller. But director Arthur Penn’s film — in which the protagonist has aged 10 years, to 121 — brought renewed attention to Mr. Berger’s novel.

The portrait of his Zelig of the Old West is, by turns, funny, randy, gritty, tragic and touching. Crabb encounters virtually every celebrated character of the West, from Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane to Buffalo Bill Cody, Sitting Bull and Custer, a longtime nemesis Crabb follows from one corner of the country to another.

“Custer knowed how to put Indians on the defensive,” Mr. Berger wrote in Crabb’s distinctive voice. “It was winter, and he burned up their robes. They lived by their riding, and he killed their horses. He held captive fifty of their women and children. They watched him helpless.”

In Mr. Berger’s telling, Crabb’s claim to have been the only white survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, where Custer met his downfall in 1876, seems not just plausible but somehow inevitable.

“Little Big Man” is “one of the dozen or so best American novels since World War II,” Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda wrote in 1996. “If Mark Twain had written Huckleberry Finn’s further adventures, those that took place after he lit out for the territories, they could hardly better Jack Crabb’s pungent recollections of the Old West.”

Thomas Louis Berger was born July 20, 1924, in Cincinnati. Has father was a business manager with a public school system.

After serving in the Army Medical Corps during World War II, Mr. Berger graduated in 1948 from the University of Cincinnati. He did graduate work in English at ­Columbia University and worked as a librarian and editor in New York.

He began to write fiction in the 1950s and moved to rural Rockland County, N.Y., with his wife, artist Jeanne Redpath, whom he married in 1950. She is his only survivor.

Mr. Berger’s first novel, “Crazy in Berlin,” about the misadventures of a World War II soldier named Carlo Reinhart, was published in 1958.

Mr. Berger published three other Reinhart novels — “Reinhart in Love” (1962), “Vital Parts” (1970) and “Reinhart’s Women” (1981) — that recounted the life of a hapless Middle American with troublesome children, chronic job worries and a never-ending series of regrets.

After “Little Big Man,” Mr. Berger wrote other novels that shifted from one genre to another.

He sampled science fiction and utopian fantasy in “Regiment of Women” (1973), “Changing the Past” (1989) and “Adventures of the Artificial Woman” (2004). “Arthur Rex: A Legendary Novel” (1978) retold the Camelot legend of King Arthur; “Orrie’s Story” (1990) was a reworking of the Greek tragedies of Aeschylus; “Robert Crews” (1994) was an updated version of “Robinson Crusoe.”

“Who Is Teddy Villanova?” (1977) was a comic pastiche of the hard-boiled detective novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Describing a fat man wearing dentures, Mr. Berger wrote: “He spoke in a singular manner, scarcely opening his oral aperture …

“ ‘Oorillpuh –’ he began, and then, confirming my suspicion, probed his mouth with a parsnip finger, and started again with a clarified version of the same phrase: ‘You little punk — ’ .”

Some of Mr. Berger’s best-received novels, such as “Neighbors” (1980), “The Feud” (1983), “The Houseguest” (1988) and “Meeting Evil” (1992), were disturbing tales of suburban angst in which ordinary misunderstandings spin madly out of control.

“The only genuine problem I ever have in my work is in arriving at a style,” Mr. Berger said in a rare 1980 interview, conducted by letter with critic Richard Schickel and published in the New York Times. “Once I have it — or I should say ‘hear it’ — the book writes itself.”

In 1984, Mr. Berger’s “The Feud” was the top choice of the fiction jury to win the Pulitzer Prize, but the Pulitzer board overruled the jury and awarded the prize to William Kennedy’s “Ironweed.”

“Neighbors” was made into a 1981 film starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. “Meeting Evil” was the basis of a 2012 movie with Samuel L. Jackson and Luke Wilson.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Mr. Berger was known as a gregarious man who enjoyed showing off his excellent cooking at dinner parties. He was a film critic for Esquire magazine in the early 1970s and had occasional teaching stints at Yale, the University of Kansas and other schools.

But over time he retreated from the public until, by the late 1970s, his agent and publisher didn’t know how to reach him. His business card, according to a 1990 Washington Post story, contained only his name, with no address or phone number.

“The real truth about me is that I am monstrously lazy,” Mr. Berger told Schickel in 1980. “To walk abroad one must put on one’s shoes and shave.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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