Thomas Berger’s Neighbors

The fiction that I read and discuss on this blog falls under the broad but relatively unknown category of “weird fiction”, which can include fantasy, sci-fi and horror as well as plenty of stories that are genuinely unclassifiable.  Most of these tales involve some element of the fantastic — the supernatural, impossible technologies, and so forth — but it is certainly not a prerequisite, at least in my mind.  Plenty of stories are stunningly “weird”, even “bizarre”, without having a single alien or sparkly vampire.

With this in mind, I recently acquired and read Thomas Berger’s 1980 novel, Neighbors:

I have known about the book for a long time thanks to the movie version that came out in 1981 starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd; it was Belushi’s last film before his untimely death in 1982.  Never heard of the film?  It is still relatively obscure; it got mixed reviews on release, and seems to have faded quickly from the public’s conscience — there hasn’t even been a DVD release.

I’ll say some words about the movie version at the end of the post, but I wanted to share my thoughts on Berger’s book, which I can best describe as a genuinely unnerving story of suburban paranoia.

Middle-aged suburbanite Earl Keese lives in a nice suburban home on a lonely dead-end road with his wife Enid.  He has a predictable routine: go to work in the city, come home to dinner with the wife, relax, repeat.  Then one evening a couple moves into the house next door, the only other house on the road.  The new neighbors, Harry and Ramona, are not your ordinary suburban residents.  From the moment of introductions, their bizarre behavior catches Earl off-guard, and soon he finds himself in a war with them, even as he welcomes them to the neighborhood and attempts to be neighborly.  Over the course of a single night, Harry and Ramona will challenge Earl’s carefully structured existence, and threaten to tear it down — would that be such a bad thing, though?

The novel is very dark comedy.  Harry and Ramona are completely unpredictable, even bipolar — they have no sense of social conventions, and switch from friendly and flirtatious to threatening and condescending in an instant.  Provoked by them, however, Earl finds himself matching them in madness, and many hijinx ensue.  The novel contains fistfights, property damage, seduction, heart-to-heart conversations and even gunfire!

Paranoia resonates throughout the story.  Earl finds in the course of the evening that his other friends, his daughter, and even his wife are not the steadfast allies he thought they were and are even as unpredictable as the new neighbors: supportive one moment, disparaging the next, even on the same topic!  Earl’s story feels very much like a metaphorical train speeding along much too fast, threatening at every moment to come off the rails.

Oddly, though, I find the story a positive one, though to explain what I mean by that would give away too much.  The novel is absolutely fascinating, though it can feel much of the time like hearing nails on a chalkboard!

As I said, the book was made into a 1981 movie starring John Belushi as Earl and Dan Aykroyd as Harry, renamed “Vic”.

The movie seems to be relatively unloved; it has a 5.2/10 rating on imdb.com as of this writing.  Roger Ebert’s 1981 review of the film is much more forgiving — he referred to Neighbors as “a truly interesting comedy, an offbeat experiment in hallucinatory black humor. It grows on you.”

I wholeheartedly agree with Ebert.  I find the movie to be bizarrely compelling, and have felt so since I first saw it probably over 20 years ago.  The casting of Belushi and Aykroyd is very ingenious, especially since they more or less reversed the roles they were traditionally known for at the time.  Belushi, the crazy guy, ends up playing the most straight-laced Earl Keese, while Aykroyd, the straight man, is the off-beat weirdo Harry/Vic.

I personally found the movie surprisingly faithful to the book, though many of the specific events are different.  The movie has a deliberately goofy, sitcom-like soundtrack that I suspect irritates a lot of viewers but works just fine for me.  The book is much darker overall, and “Harry” is much more menacing than the rather oafish “Vic”.  The biggest departure, however, arises in what is essentially the last few pages of the book, and gives the movie a more positive tone than the book.

So would I recommend the book and/or the movie?  Personally, I would give a qualified “yes” on both.  They’re definitely not for everyone — lots of people don’t have the stomach for the sort of subtle insanity that is portrayed.

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