Berger's Story

THOMAS BERGER'S business card contains two words: his name. No phone number, no address, no profession is listed. This is a man who doesn't want to be pinned down too closely, who prides himself on being invisible. It's a desire that is evident in his work; few major American writers are less autobiographical.

Next month, Little, Brown will publish Berger's 17th novel, Orrie's Story, which draws its plot from Aeschylus's Oresteia. Meanwhile, the last year has seen most of his work re-released in trade paperback. His best novels include Little Big Man (1964), considered to be among the finest historical novels of the American West; the Reinhart tetralogy, four novels that follow the eponymous hero from Army service (Crazy in Berlin, 1958) to success as a television chef (Reinhart's Women, 1981); Sneaky People (1975) and The Feud (1983), masterful black comedies of small-town life in late-Depression America; Killing Time (1967), an unconventional portrait of a murderer; and Neighbors (1980), a very funny contemporary story about the people next door.

Berger, 66, lives with his wife, Jeanne Redpath, in a town near Manhattan he'd rather not name. For a quarter-century he has shaved his head, on the theory that he might as well complete what nature started. For an even longer period, he's been a full-time writer, one who no sooner finishes a book than he begins another.

"I never take a vacation because what would it be from?" he once asked. "I became a novelist many years ago so that I might live in a continuum of make-believe in which there are no weekends and, more importantly, no Monday mornings." He abhors spoken interviews, but agreed to answer a few questions in writing.

While not quite in J.D. Salinger's league, you have the reputation of being a bit of a recluse.

The plain truth is that I would shamelessly suck up to anybody who might further my career (which indeed seems to be precisely what I'm doing here), but in the far-off days when I went public in quest of self-aggrandizement, I encountered only other opportunists, mes semblables et freres, who expected to do to me what I had intended to do to them.

A 1981 Time magazine feature said you waited six years before meeting one of your publishers.

I have had an unlisted phone number for more than 20 years. Furthermore, I screen, on an answering machine, any call that is made to me by anyone who has the number. I never go out to dinner at all (I don't eat dinner, in fact), and I don't go to parties, openings, premiers, receptions, et cetera . . . Much of what determines my procedures is superstition, a private sort and not the black-cat, Friday-13th thing.

Many authors say that they, like you, would rather not do publicity, but feel compelled to do so for fear their work would otherwise be unnoticed.

But how chagrined I should be were my work neglected because I did interviews, signed books, etc., which I'm sure would be the case, for my novels are at odds with what appears to be my sweet and gentle personality, which is a mask, underneath which is an even sweeter and gentler soul: I don't dare expose my deficiency in heartlessness to a world which so admires brutality.

You've spoken of your Army service as an important influence.

I loved the Army. It is another of the ironies that have shaped my life as they have shaped my fiction that, though I have owned guns since I was 10 or 11 years old, I went through World War II unarmed, as a member of the Army's Medical Department. I was not in combat and, until I read a book on the subject a couple of years ago, I had assumed the V-1 buzz bombs and V-2 rockets that fell on London while I was there were confined to the East End docks, whereas I now learn that they were plunging earthwards as well near the streets where I wandered the blackout looking for whores, too distracted to attend to any other phenomena -- though I do recall talking to a tart on Piccadilly as overhead soared something with an engine that sounded (as journalists of that far-off day said) like that of a Model-T Ford, the Tin Lizzie of the 1920s, and the nymph of the streets said, "Coo, look at the buzz bomb!" Earlier she had accosted me with the cry, "Come on, Lofty, 'ave a go at it!" I was then as tall as I am now (6 feet 1 1/2), but weighed 30 pounds less, hence looked even taller.

The only serious phase of my service was carrying stretchers -- in Army jargon, litter-bearing -- from the ambulances into the hospital, whenever new casualties arrived. Until you've carried a dying man on a litter, you have no idea how heavy such a person is; this job routinely requires four men, one on each of the four corners, yet the burden is still almost unbearable, in my memory.

Your hero Carlo Reinhart once concluded that "food is really kinder than people."

Cooking, unlike writing, is a performing art like playing the cello, and that which has been made is evanescent -- at least as an event or spectacle, though the food stays with the eater perhaps too long. I started cooking when it occurred to me one day that my long and intense interest in food ought to be legitimized by learning to prepare it for the table. And I must say that a gastronome is no more than a eunuch until he has worked in the kitchen. For more than a decade now, except for the meals I have taken in restaurants, I have prepared all the food I have eaten.

Another passion of yours is that exceedingly popular genre, the true-crime tale.

Those gentle and law-abiding folk who like to read true-crime books seek to satisfy a natural human bloodlust in a harmless and legal fashion, but also perhaps to put ourselves vicariously into lethal situations, only to emerge unscathed at the end of the story. But can't we do that with fiction? Not really, for fiction is always reasonable, whereas reality almost never makes any sense.

If your work is not autobiographical, what inspires you?

Ideas come to me when I'm distracted by other things, e.g., often when I'm watching TV. Usually the suggestion is no more than a word or phrase. Except for the novels that follow an established sequence or pattern, Little Big Man or Arthur Rex, I have little sense of where a story is going until it has arrived there, nor do I usually begin with more than one preconceived character -- and by "preconceived," I mean only some vague identification: a houseguest, whom none of his hosts remembers inviting, takes over the house {The Houseguest}. A loser takes his cue from those who have disregarded him for so long, and becomes literally invisible {Being Invisible}. And so on.

Assuming the writing hadn't worked out, what would you have done instead?

If I hadn't become a writer, I should have liked to have some professional association with animals, though I probably lack the guts to be a veterinarian: perhaps some role at a humane zoo. Maybe the guy who pushes the blocks of ice into the polar-bear pool.

Do you have much sense of your readers?

That I am read by anyone other than myself has always been unbelievable to me. The only audience whose respect I yearn for is that of my literary masters, all long dead: I hope my endurance, if nothing else, will eventually qualify me for some flunky role on Olympus -- quill-sharpener, wastebasket emptier, or the like.Battle Stations HERE'S A timely opening for a novel: "The forward lookout, a twenty-year-old seaman from Chula Vista, was lighting his fifteenth Winston of the morning when he saw the incoming missile."

Add that this scene is set in the Persian Gulf -- that the novel it is from, is in fact, called The Gulf -- and you might get the feeling that here is an author who has somehow managed to anticipate the events of the last month. The second chapter begins with a Stonefield, Vt., dairy farmer and Naval Reserve diver being called up -- something that hadn't happened for 20 years when The Gulf was being written.

But author David Poyer, an Annapolis graduate who is now in the Naval Reserve himself, is worried he may be seen as cashing in on the current crisis. "It makes me uncomfortable to talk about the book while my friends have their lives on the line," says Poyer, who lives near Cape Charles on Virginia's Eastern Shore.

Furthermore, he points out that his book, despite some serendipitous similiarities to the current situation, presents a world where Iran and Iraq are still going at each other. The missile in that first sentence, as it happens, is Iranian.

As a line officer on destroyers and amphibious ships, Poyer, now 40, served in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the North Atlantic and the Arctic -- but not the Gulf. Fictionally, though, he was drawn there. "I felt some unfinished business, that the Navy would be back. Geopolitically and strategically, there is a power vacuum."

The Gulf, published by St. Martin's, is Poyer's 10th book and the second in a tetralogy on the modern Navy. The first in the series, The Med, is the only contemporary novel being taught in associate English professor Herb Gilliland's Literature of the Sea course at the U.S. Naval Academy.

"Poyer's books are recent, timely and sufficiently attractive reading to justify using one of them," says Gilliland. "The Med gives a feel of what it's like to be out on a deployed ship during an operation, and that's particularly valuable for budding naval officers to be able to experience."

Poyer's devotion to the Navy is reflected in the dedication of The Gulf. Most writers tend to dedicate their books to their family or friends, but Poyer writes that this one is for "all those who serve in what we call peace -- though it isn't." Specially named are the crews of the Stark and the Samuel B. Roberts, two ships that have already seen combat in the Middle East.

This may give the impression that Poyer is the author of gung-ho, "my armed services can do no wrong"-type technothrillers. Quite the opposite, he says.

"I think people in the Navy and military have one central conflict -- between what your conscience tells you to do and your duty as a member of an organization that exists to do violence in the service of the state. I don't think it should be the way Tom Clancy presents it -- that they always make the right decision, are always competent, always heroic. Sometimes my characters do heroic things and sometimes they don't. That, I feel, is closer to the truth." In the Margin ATLANTIC Monthly Press has won the rights to Vaclav Havel's biography, Vision and Politics, to be written by his longtime chum, Czech novelist Eda Kriseova. The top bid was said to be in the low six figures, with interest intensified by the Czech president's insistence that he would not write an autobiography . . .

For no particular reason other than he wanted to write a book, Jack Barth compiled a list of 20 quests reflecting "the profoundest desires of a middle-class American born in the 1950s or '60s." As recounted in American Quest (Fireside), these range from "help search for Bigfoot in Washington State with a university professor who plans to hunt the man-beast by helicopter and kill it" to "milk a cow in Iowa." As it happened, those two never made it out of the starting gate. More successful quests include getting convicted-murderer-turned-artist John Wayne Gacy to paint the book's cover (pretty tasteless, Jack) and visiting the graves of his baseball heroes.