To a lot of people, the title Neighbors conjures up fairly recent memories of the raucous Seth Rogen/Zac Efron frat boy comedy. To an older generation, it may trigger a dim recollection of the identically-titled flop starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. To colossal shut-in nerd like the Holy Bee, the go-to is the Thomas Berger novel on which the Belushi/Aykroyd film is based.
Berger (1924-2014) has written about two dozen novels, but he’s probably best known for the picaresque quasi-Western Little Big Man. He also wrote one of my favorite Arthurian novels, Arthur Rex. But it’s this seemingly low-stakes, dark comedy tale published in 1980, set in sleepy suburbia, that I keep coming back to. I’ve re-read it many times since I was about fifteen, and it doesn’t seem to get old.
Earl Keese, 49, and his wife Enid live at the end of a cul-de-sac in a semi-rural area near an unnamed “village” where everything closes by six, and within commuting distance of a large unnamed city. (The setting is Staten Island in my imagination, but it could be somewhere in New Jersey. Definitely East Coast.) Keese works at an office in the city, but beyond that, we never learn anything about his occupation. Enid is a housewife. They have a single child, daughter Elaine, who is away at college. He arrives home one Friday evening to the news from his wife that there’s only leftover succotash for dinner — and that the vacant house that they share the end of the cul-de-sac with is now occupied by a younger couple.
Within minutes, Keese is dealing with the female half of the couple, Ramona, who shows up on his doorstep, seeming to want nothing but to make him uncomfortable. She helps herself to Keese’s wineglass he had left on the coffee table, stares fixedly at his crotch for long enough that he believes his fly must be down, and remarks — after knowing him all of three minutes — that “you’re not so old, but you are too fat.” With old-fashioned politeness, Keese invites the couple to dinner, then goes into the kitchen to discuss non-succotash dinner options with his wife. He raises the possibility of going out to a nice restaurant. Enid is totally passive and doesn’t want to do anything (a recurring theme for her.) When Keese returns, he finds Ramona has vanished, and her partner, Harry, has let himself in without knocking, and — after knowing him all of two minutes — slaps Keese affectionately on the ass.
From that awkward but sort of harmless beginning, things degenerate. At first it’s just that everything Harry and Ramona do is completely foreign to anything in Keese’s experience, and that they do not observe the social cues and forced inane niceties of late-middle aged suburban life. This culture clash spirals downward quickly. Over the course of the next 24 hours, there is psychological warfare, sexual tension, property damage, physical violence, and not a wink of sleep. What’s worse is that the more Keese tries to expose Harry and Ramona as sociopaths, the more these efforts backfire. When he attempts to verify some of Harry’s seemingly bold-faced lies, they almost — almost — check out. Sometimes Keese actually gets the better of them, but usually he is the one humiliated. The ultimate humiliation is that Enid and Elaine (who has arrived home unexpectedly) repeatedly come to their defense, implying that Keese is close-minded and paranoid. The more harried he becomes, the more calm and dismissive they become.
If it were merely a back-and-forth of retaliatory hijinks, it would be more of a kind with the shallow-but-entertaining Seth Rogen movie. Berger goes darker and deeper. The twist here is that even though the book is not written in the first-person, everything in the story is filtered through Keese’s perception — and that perception is not to be trusted. If the novel were in first-person, Keese would be an “unreliable narrator.” It is revealed in the first few pages that his eyes and mind often play tricks on him, causing him to see things that aren’t really there, or rather, to twist things that are there into bizarre hallucinations. When he first sees Harry and Ramona’s dog, a large wolfhound, he mistakes it for a naked human being on all fours. That sort of thing. How much of this affliction affects Keese’s perception of his neighbors is for the reader to decide. There are moments when Harry and Ramona aren’t around that his wife and daughter admit the new neighbors are indeed creepy people and that they are just trying to placate them. But there are also moments when they are not there that Enid and Elaine continue to defend them, or at least shrug off Keese’s concerns. What is to be believed? What the hell is going on?
Under all of the hostility, Keese is, of course, exhilarated. He’s feeling a rush for the first time in years, finally breaking free of his complacency. By about three a.m., when he’s scampering through his basement and dark backyard, planning his next move, and vowing to spend the rest of his life “armed to the teeth,” we see a man that’s truly alive. As the story ends, Keese’s old life is in ruins. His wife is blithely considering separate living arrangements as if it’s as unimportant as changing the sheets, and his beloved daughter is revealed to be a much more reprehensible human being than the likes of Ramona. The fact that it all crumbles to dust so easily indicates that it was barely holding together in the first place. Habit was the one and only reason Keese’s life had been what it was. In the end, he joins forces with Harry and Ramona. The universe has other plans for Earl Keese.
Reviewer Stanley Trachtenberg says that Neighbors is a “parable…[in which] the loss of coherence between various aspects of self comically fragments the notion of identity and thus fictionalizes the existential concept of authenticity as a shaping condition of it.”
Everybody got that?
One of the things I noticed about the novel is that every character speaks in the arch, verbose tones of an East Coast literary intellectual. In other words, every character speaks like Thomas Berger. This is often considered a writing flaw, but I have to believe Berger is a smart enough writer to have done this deliberately, although his reasoning eludes me. (The brutish Harry, after slapping Keese backhand-and-forehand, Stooges-style, muses “I guess the whap-whap-whap sound must be made by artificial means.” Who talks like that?)
Keese is not always a particularly sympathetic character. He seems to be the mouthpiece for some of Berger’s own snobbery, prejudices and bemoaning of first-world problems. “We’ve got no edible takeout in these parts,” Keese laments. “Only the standard burgers and dogs, pizza.” Well, excuse me, Mr. New York Sophisticate, but to an actual suburbanite like myself, burgers, dogs, and pizza are just fine.
I can still recall what drew me to the book in the first place — the lengthy description in the John Belushi biography Wired of the film adaptation’s troubled production. Belushi had drug problems (to put it mildly), the broadly comic script failed to capture the subtle psychology of the novel, and the director, John G. Avildsen, was great for movies like Rocky and The Karate Kid, but had no comedy instincts whatsoever. The result was a clunky, awkwardly-paced mess of a movie that resoundingly bombed at the box office in late 1981, and became a staple on HBO for a few years thereafter before being forgotten entirely.
Still…there’s something about it that I liked. It’s one of those movies that if it ever popped up as I channel-surfed, I would stop and watch for awhile. John Belushi normally played appetite-driven wild men, but here (in his final role) plays against type as the mild-mannered Keese…and crushes it. I believe he could have had a bright future as a character actor. Aykroyd, in the Harry role (changed to “Vic” for some reason) is buffoonish yet still kind of menacing. Neighbors the movie has none of the nuance of the novel, but does have a certain shaggy-dog charm even if it doesn’t really hold together.
My paperback copy of the novel, purchased at a long-closed Brentano’s in about 1989, is well-thumbed and dog-eared, but holding up okay. Sometimes I read the whole thing, sometimes I just re-read a favorite passage to let Berger’s prose roll around in my head.
It’s a ten-dollar Kindle purchase, or you can get change back on a five for a used copy on Amazon. It’s at least worth a library check-out.