Today we celebrate the 85th birthday of Thomas Berger, one of the funniest writers in the language. He remains best known for the third of his 23 novels, Little Big Man (1964), but I’m probably fondest of Vital Parts (1971), Sneaky People (1975) and The Feud (1983). Berger has always denied he is a humorist but rather a novelist of manners like one of his writing heroes, Anthony Powell. Berger’s prose, like Powell’s, is flexible, never self-consciously arty. He’s a master of the American demotic, a lineal descendent of Twain at his best – that is, Huckleberry Finn and Life on the Mississippi. I wish someone would collect the movie reviews Berger published in Esquire in 1972-73. Few writers have given me so much raw pleasure.
For a taste of Berger, go here and read selections from his correspondence with the novelist Zulfikar Ghose. Here’s a sample:
“I hadn’t remembered that Pound disparaged Shaw and I don’t think I ever heard your opinion, but I’m delighted to hear that you both find him trivial. I agree. Shaw has always seemed a journalist and not really a literary man. It’s his tendentiousness, I think, that keeps him trivial. He’s always out to solve social problems—the sure sign of a superficial practitioner.”