Monday, June 30, 2003

Destructive Affinities

Best Friends by Thomas Berger. Simon and Schuster. 209 pages. $24.00

"One friend in a lifetime is much, two are many, three are hardly possible." So wrote Henry Adams, that great sourpuss of American letters. This may be a little too optimistic for Thomas Berger, who has always had a special talent for darkly comic novels of suburban anomie. His classic in this regard is the 1980 Neighbors, where staid, middle-aged Earl Keese finds himself locked in a power struggle with the kinky couple who move in next door. Berger isn't cynical about the possibility of people getting along; you might say he's both fatalist and moralist, sympathetic to the people caught in the catastrophes he so neatly arranges for them, but not particularly merciful about their fates. (Poor Earl. One still remembers his dying gasp.)

Berger has written about a great many things in a career that spans over 40 years, but his latest puts him back on familiar turf. It's not perfect; there are occasional sentences that come off as either overworked or stiff, and his casual, tossed-off observations can seem more annoying than apt. But this twenty-second novel by one of the few American writers who can be called "seriously funny" is a bit like one of the many classic cars that are part of the story’s environment; it has its idiosyncrasies, but there's no denying the elegance of its design or the sheer power of its performance. It delivers a smooth ride -- right over the precipice, as only Berger can.

Outside of the fact that they're both 33-year-old trust fund babies and pals for 20 years, Roy Courtland and Sam Grandy have little in common on the surface. They're the typical odd couple, slob and snob. Roy is handsome and single, a health nut whose main obsessions are beautiful women and beautiful cars. Sam is obnoxious, grossly overweight, and a sucker for fancy gadgets he can't operate. He's also married to Kristin, who is way too pretty for him, and who doesn't much care for Roy -- friends being somewhat more forgiving of excesses than wives are. Roy and Sam are honest with each other as only friends can be; Roy thinks even their occasional lies show how close they are, since lying to a best friend is "the next best thing to lying to oneself."

While Roy piddles around selling "vintage high performance" cars that no one can afford, Sam doesn't work at all; his care and feeding is left up to Kristin, an up and coming manager at a local bank branch and a gourmet chef at home. Sam has also blown most of his inheritance on newfangled toys and bad investments, and continually hits up Roy for loans he has no intention of repaying. Roy and Kristin are Sam's co-dependents, and Roy in particular prides himself on being tolerant, good-natured, and loyal.

But Roy, the main character of the book, is also a fake; a deluded narcissist and a needy loner. He rhapsodizes about how much he loves the women he seduces, when actually all he really wants is an easy way in and an easier way out. He connects with Sam because Sam sees through him -- as do most of the women he dates, eventually -- and he can't connect with anyone else except his classic autos, which he prefers to think have a "soul." Roy is a perfect example of what he hates in his married lover, Francine: solipsism, the belief that nothing is real but one's self. In fact, all three major characters are less at home with people than with the objects of their own little worlds: Sam with his cappuccino machine and microbrewed beer, Roy with his three-liter drophead coupes, and Kristin with her salmon fillets and julienned fennel.

Cozy and reliable as the friendship seems to be, there are fissures in it, and two successive events set the course of implosion: Sam has a heart attack and winds up in the hospital, and Francine gets killed by her husband in a murder-suicide. With no one to turn to, Roy finds himself seeking solace from Kristin, who actually begins to like him; Roy as a person is different from "Sam's idea of you, which is really different," she hints darkly, "maybe more different than you expect." When Sam claims bankruptcy and begs for a massive loan, Roy's loyalties are torn between his feckless pal and his pal's sensible wife, forcing him to question just how his friendship with Sam started and what has sustained it for so long. The closer Roy gets to Kristin, the more ulterior Sam's motives begin to seem, raising questions about his own. Are these two men who swear there's no competition between them actually in a lifelong battle to get on each other's nerves and, eventually, finish the other one off?

Berger is not the type of writer who usually brings Goethe to mind, but the relationships in Best Friends made me think constantly of Elective Affinities, that strange expository novel of Teutonic romanticism. Goethe compared people to chemical agents that naturally attract or oppose, sometimes attracting in spite of opposition because of their mutual relationship with a third; one character in Goethe's novel cites the example of oil and water joined by alkaline salt. Roy and Kristin are at odds with each other at some level because they feel proprietary toward Sam, but he is also their common financial and psychological burden who takes advantage of both and keeps either from getting what he or she wants. Similarly, Roy and Sam each have something the other wants; Roy wants Kristin and Sam wants money, and Kristin is their "common opponent" -- she stops Roy from giving money to Sam, and while she'll sleep with Roy, she won't divorce Sam to marry him. Berger delicately traces all the twists and turns of a menage that promises everything and only delivers its opposite, continually jacking up the emotional ante.

"There are times when all choices must, as if by divine law, be disastrous," Roy thinks at one point, quickly consoling himself by saying those things only happen in "works of the imagination." The joke, of course, is that Roy is a character in such a work, but the point is that in both art and life personal and natural disasters do have a shape, a history, and a malefic destiny. For Roy and Sam, no bond of loyalty becomes stronger than the bond of mutually assured destruction.

This deceptively "light" and easy read digs into the hidden recesses of friendship with a remarkably subtle touch. At 79, Berger still nails the passive-aggressiveness of modern life like no other writer alive.

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