Earl Keese is fiftyish, respectable and well-employed, a property-owner at the end of an isolated dead-end street out in the fringe where suburbs are turning into country. He is established, overweight, set in his ways, and (to tell the truth -- as hapens only ocassionally in "Neighbors") something of a self-satisfied prig. Beneath this surface, his contact with reality is sometimes fitful and tenuous; he is subject to but disturbing hallucinations.
As the book opens, a moving van is next door, unloading the furniture of Harry and Ramona (no last name given; they are probably, but not necessarily, married), members of the generation born after World War II that began flexing its sociological muscles in the late '60s.
The pattern of the generation-clash between these parties is set by the first conversation between Keese and Ramona, after she has come to his door and he has determined by careful inspection (chiefly of her breasts) what he cannot tell from her clothes: that she is a woman, a fit subject for gallantry.
"'Hello,'" says Keese, "'and what may I do for you?'
"'Anything you like,'" says Ramona. "'The problem is what you want in return.'"
That is, indeed, the problem. What Keese wants in his neighbors (though he might phrase it somewhat differently) is a certain fixity of character, predictability, adherence to established codes of conduct which will make it possible to navigate social situations without unpleasant surprises.
He receives no such thing in this brief, tumultuous novel, which reads like a television sitcom written by Kafka (the model has been suggested by the author). Instead, he is plunged into unwilling intimacy with the ethical cliches of the generation following his own. Harry and Romona are spontaneous, open, laid back, splendidly indifferent to the work ethic, scornful of conventions and overpoweringly chummy -- pure flower children, though quite a bit beyond childhood They also lie, cheat, steal, manipulate, resort to sexual threats and blackmail, and casually treat other people's property as their own.
They are, of course, caricatures -- though anyone who spent time in a commune 10 years ago has met the originals and will recognize some likenesses. Kesse, too, is a bit of a caricature, though less obviously so because the original can be seen everywhere and the cliches by which he lives are less colorful. When a fire destroy's Harry and Ramona's house after they have barely moved in, they become guests in Keese's house. The clash of value-systems is intensified; Keese finds his wife, Enid, his 21-year-old daughter, Elaine, and even himself being won over to Harry and Ramona's style. His character changes, he begins doing things he would never have imagined possible, in imitation or retaliation, and his already fragile grasp of reality comes close to disintegration. "Neighbors" is highly readable, often very funny, and thought-provoking; it is existential slapstick, with a careful perception of contemporary manners embodied in its frenzied action.
Berger's debt to Kafka is evident in the slippery way the book's realities keep shifting, the constant confrontation with uncertainty. Was Ramona trying to seduce Keese? Did Harry set his own house on fire before accusing Keese of arson? Is Ramona having lesbian relations with Enid and Elaine? By what right did Harry and Ramona move into the house that was later mysteriously destroyed? Did Enid give meat to Ramona's dog, Baby, after declaring that there was no food in the house? The list could be as endless as it is seemingly trivial -- but no reality is trivial when it becomes abruptly dis-established. There is also a trace of Kafka in the way identities tend to dissolve and shift, and in the constant recurrence of absurdity as a basic plot ingredient. In his exploitation of these elements. Berger takes an honorable place in the lineage not only of Kafka but of Joyce and Nabokov.
But the work that "Neighbors" most clearly resembles, intentionally or not, is Moliere's "Tartuffee," a play in which the values of the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment clash as those of the pre-war and postwar generations do in Berger's novel, a play in which bourgeois complacency is swindled by hypocrisy -- though the precise details of Tartuffe's hypocrisy are almost diametrically opposed to the now-generation masquerade of Harry and Ramona.
Berger's attitude toward the two sets of values thus contrasted remains ambiguous in this novel. Keese is a bit dull and stodgy, but at least not a clear and present danger to civilization as we have known it. Harry and Ramona are parasites who cannot exist without society that would dissolve if everyone lived as they do. Their characters lack substance and consistency -- but they are vital, vivid and exciting. Meeting them in person might be a jarring experience, but they make a fascinating book.