By B.A. Nilsson
& Schuster, 209 pages, $24
and Sam are such close friends that each has learned to live
with the peccadilloes of the other, although Roy is beginning
to question his tolerance. With a bond that stretches back
to childhood, the title characters of Best Friends exemplify
the kind of pairing characteristic of Thomas Bergers
fiction (and deftly analyzed in a recent Voice Literary Supplement
essay by Jonathan Lethem).
duality was found in single characters like Little Big Mans
Jack Crabb, shuttling between his upbringings as a white man
and as an Indian, and the psychotic Joe Detweiler in Killing
Time; in the identity swap of Earl Keese with his new neighbors
Harry and Ramona in Neighbors; and in the protagonists
permutations in Being Invisible and Changing the Past, in
which each reimagining is sparked by a wish to change as much
as by a need to bridge that gap to an existing ideal.
Bergers fiendish sense of humora quality that
too often prompts the unwary reader to label him a comic authorit
was inevitable that he should present the most awful aspects
of a mans other side, as a murderous but charming fellow
in the dark-as-night novel Meeting Evil. Best Friends is another
meditation on that theme, but here it becomes a mystery story
as Roy struggles to understand the nature of his friendship
with Sam when the latter is suddenly hospitalized.
as Roy follows his usual routines (dealing in vintage autos
and dealing with several recalcitrant girlfriends), hes
forced to scrutinize these activities anew, a perspective
he gains through a sudden interest in Sams wife, Kristin.
If Roys previous behavior seemed narcissistic, here
he has unwittingly tapped into a deeper strain of self-interest:
Hell eventually confound all of his received expectations
by discovering just how unique is his best friends wife.
Bergers previous novel, The Return of Little Big Man,
was an orchestral suite, Best Friends is a Baroque triple
concerto, with the soloists constantly shifting in timbre
against an always surprising background.
but not inconsistent. Bergers characterizations draw
as much from discordant situational juxtapositions as they
do from dialogue and inner thought. Trying to protect Francine,
a longtime girlfriend, from her violent ex-husband, Roy physically
sandbags the man in a display of parking-lot heroicsbut
the encounter results in the man later beating his ex-wife
to death. Roy impulsively turns to Kristin for comfort because
he has nobody else to turn to, least of all his sister:
their lives, Robin had been the worst person with whom to
seek solace. He did not dare to approach her with anything
to announce but a success, and of course she would endeavor
to disparage that. A failure of any kind would make her crow.
In the case at hand she would say, Sleep with dogs,
get up with fleas. What do you expect when a trollop is your
idea of a suitable girlfriend? Her idea of a woman for
him was someone from her own circle of embittered divorcées
with child-support problems: Ironically, people much like
Francine in situation but presumably less bawdy or anyway
more circumspect. Francine in fact had been a neighbor of
Celeste Brownson, a pal of Robins whom his sister had
urged him to date. I call her Celezzy to her face,
Francine told him, and she doesnt mind at all!
Her trouble is, she cant ever admit to herself that
she basically hates men. Poor Evan! It must have been like
sticking it into a bowl of cold risotto.
to the precision of Bergers writing, a paragraph like
the above advances our understanding of Roys character
even as it orchestrates his situation and finishes off with
the little whip-crack of an unexpected laugh. And its
a pleasure to read for the sheer beauty of its construction.
has a playwrights ear for dialogue, but stylizes the
speech of his characters to suit the medium of print. His
people carry props and occupy settings, but not much more
than is needed to reinforce who they are.
action is also important. Hospitalized Sam, little visited,
exerts an influence through the conscience-tugging power of
his implied presence alone. At the same time, Roy is confounded
by the unseen movements and conversations of his sister, his
secretary and others as his fascination with Kristin grows.
of the pleasure of reading this compact novel is in gleaning
and connecting the undercurrents, even while glorying in the
narrative voice. With a cascade of fascinating insights into
the nature of love and sex and friendship, and with an unexpectedly
satisfying resolution, Best Friends once again asserts Bergers
staying power as one of the finest craftsmen working in the