Pity poor Carlo Reinhart. His daughter's a lesbian. So's his boss. His daughter-in-law is a nut case, his lover is an adulteress and his ex-wife is back in town.
"Reinhart's Women," a lightweight but buoyant burlesque of life in the post-feminist '80s, is Thomas Berger's fourth novel starring the lovable schlepper Carlo Reinhart, the beleaguered antihero whom Berger picks up every few years as a sort of satirical litmus strip, dipping him in the society of the moment and watching him turn green with envy, red with embarrassment or white with remorse. In "Crazy in Berlin" (1958), Reinhart is a soldier in occupied Berlin, duped by the cruel swindles of postwar predators on both sides. In "Reinhart in Love" (1962), he returns to the United States, unprepared for the high cost of free enterprise and too civil to be a civilian in a culture where aspiration, friendship and even love are crushed in a cash nexus. In "Vital Parts" (1970), Reinhart's marriage to a castrating vixen in the previous book has borne rotten fruit: Winona, a fat moron of a daughter; and Blaine, a son whose countercultural condemnation of his father's ideals is scarcely less humiliating than Reinhart's tubby physique or ample failure as a breadwinner.
In each case, Reinhart's sweetness of soul and gentlemanly code of behavior serve as an ironic reproach to the societies that trample them; the greater the evil of those societies, the wider the bite of the satire.
That's the problem with "Reinhart's Women": It nibbles. Reinhart's convictions are more often prissy than profound, and the principal cultural failings he encounters are intolerance toward gays, the petty mendacities of retail marketing, the rapacious indifference of television programmers and the ersatz cuisine and Formica ambiance of modern dining. These are familiar fodder for the sitcoms, hardly formidable opponents for a satirist as nimbly insightful or keenly comic as Berger has proven himself to be. And it is a testament to his good-natured inventiveness that he makes of these meager ingredients, if not a banquet, at least a good light lunch.
Reinhart redux is now 54, a fastidious gourmet cook who has shed his former flab and his work ethic as well. His only occupation is managing a modern high-rise household for Winona, who at 26 has become a highly paid fashion model. "Was he not indeed," Berger asks, tipping his hand, "an exemplification of the new kind of man made possible by the liberation of women?" Winona has a sexual yen for matronly Grace Greenwood, a ramrod food-biz exec. Grace tries to ease Reinhart's initial distaste by giving him a job hawking Mon Paris Instant Crepe Suzette Mix, where he meets co-worker Helen Clayton, an insatiable tryster who soon gets Reinhart in the sack.
But as usual, Carlo will get no peace. He is under attack by Blaine, now in his 30s, a ruthlessly successful businessman and anti-homosexual bigot, who is ashamed of his father and wants to hide him away at a sham religious commune called Paradise Farm (run by Raymond Mainwaring, the son of Carlo's black sidekick from the earlier stories). And there are aggravating assaults by a Freud's Index of women: Blaine's wife Mercer, a wandering fruitcake driven to insanity by housewifery, her husband and their dreadful spawn of grasping brats; Carlo's ex-wife Genevieve, now bitterly "independent"; nubile neighbor Edie, a taciturn dingbat whose deference to males borders on idolatry; and several others.
Unlike the previous Reinhart books, this story takes an optimistic turn. Carlo finds a television career after a brief video spot for Grace's company is suddenly extended when an aging movie heartthrob drops dead on the set; and the priggish protagonist, who begins with a full complement of male prejudices, a conversational repertoire of antique cliche's and a suspicion that "food is really nicer than people," comes to embody a healing compassion for the wackos around him.
Some of these themes may seem familiar to readers of Berger's "Regiment of Women" (1974), a fantasy world of sex-role reversal in which female domination proves no more humane than plain old piggy reality. But "Reinhart's Women" is more ambitious in its attempt to anatomize the modern concerns of the majority sex by splitting each problem off into a separate character and weighing each in Carlo's atavistic scale of values.
Or Berger's. It's impossible to tell, since Carlo's mode of speech is identical to the narrative voice -- eliminating a potentially rewarding ironic distance -- and both indulge the pseudo-ornate diction and marshmallow cadences normally seen only in book reviews, as if The New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" column had been guest-written by Lord Chesterfield.
The style is most successful when Berger is offering up epigrams: "Reinhart was reminded once again of life's tendency regularly to face one with the choice of folly or swinishness." At its worst, it is foppish maundering: "Reinhart remembered that Genevieve was wont to smoke a cigarette at table, and he dreaded the moment, no doubt imminent, when she would take the pack from her purse. But it did not yet come."
Even some freshmen may find that sophomoric. But this big-hearted and boisterous fable proves as hard to dislike as Carlo himself, and it's good to have him back.