THOMAS BERGER seems to belong to that generation of "artisan" novelists -- Anthony Burgess and Kingsley Amis spring to mind immediately, but it's hard to think of American examples (except for Norman Mailer) -- who see themselves as craftsmen plying their honest trade. They approach each new genre novel as though it were just a different style or size of shoe -- cowboy boot, space boot, gumshoe -- to be hammered out on the usual last. I have great sympathy with this down-to-earth view. One of the reasons I've always liked Thomas Berger novels is that I like to see a good formula, well-wielded by a guild master.
I like this novel, for example, a lot, even though I know it doesn't really work. It has the necessary ingredients of a good comic novel, it has the right outline, there are many moments of wonderful farce, yet it never quite comes together into a finished product.
The title invites comparison with Butler's Erewhon, and there are some similarities. In either novel, the protagonist finds himself inexplicably in a strange land where all the rules are different. Both Berger and Butler ridicule our conventions by reduction, exaggeration or inversion.
Berger's land is called San Sebastian or sometimes Saint Sebastian, a tiny principality in Central Europe. It is a place where blond-haired people are the slaves, librarians are illiterate, the government (which is non- existent) operates a Ministry of Hoaxes and a Ministry of Clams, rudeness is a crime, etc. As in Erewhon, religion and money have taken on new meanings: Churches and schools have become movie theaters, priests are the projectionists and nuns are the usherettes, and most of the populace is obliged to watch old B films endlessly. To these ingredients, Berger adds a gluttonous and pederastic ruler, a Sebastiani Liberation Front, and various shadowy puppet masters who seem to be pulling the strings for all this.
HIS PROTAGONIST, the private eye Russel Wren (first seen in Who Is Teddy Villanova?) is kidnaped in New York by a CIA-like group and sent as a spy to San Sebastian, and the fun begins.
Only it doesn't. Once the novel leaves New York behind, it also seems to leave behind Berger's usual fine sense of the ridiculous, so that he is reduced to raising a laugh by any possible means.
There is the O. Henry device of using a pompous locution for comic effect: within a few pages, we meet persons of swarthy hue, and also of tender years, a palm gets crossed with coin of the realm, things are done by reason of, by people who proceed to do them, and so on. Russel Wren might say there are a good many of the these locutions, or no paucity of them, nay, pomposity aplenty.
Berger has better luck creating comic characters. My own favorite is Clyde McCoy, an American journalist stranded in San Sebastian since 1945, a born survivor and a self-made superdrunk. Another wonderful soul is the cable clerk, a man who likes to converse in the cliches of Boston Blackie films (starring Chester Morris), and I don't mean maybe!
"That big palooka will take the cake!" the clerk told me enthusiastically. "He's triple threat. Call him anything but late for breakfast. Who do you think's flying this egg- crate?"
Whenever the novel gets away from American culture for a page, however, things get dull. Berger's observation of a New York cop holding back a crowd, on the other hand, gleams with his best wit:
"Exkewse me. Hey. Awright. Lemme. OK, folks. Huh? Naw. Yeah?" So far as I could hear, though they seemed to cover every eventuality, none of these noises was made in actual response to anything said by anybody else.
Unfortunately, Berger is so much better at dealing with the reality of American and especially New York culture, that the big- city beginning of the book comes in an easy first -- and San Sebastian, nowhere.