Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Thomas Berger, R.I.P.

I was saddened a couple of days ago when I saw the news in the New York Times that Thomas Berger had died. (Link to obituary.) For decades, Berger had been one of my favorite novelists, and as each of his books came out, I pounced--as the photo of one of our bookshelves shows (and not all of the books are visible!).

It was my classmate and friend from Hiram College, Bill Heath, who first alerted me to Berger in the mid-1960s. He told me that I had to read Berger's 1964 masterpiece, Little Big Man, a novel that I've read a half-dozen times since. Of course, I grew up in the Southwest, and as a boy I'd been a ferocious reader of biographies of Western figures--so Berger's novel was a perfect fit for me. Wild Bill Hickok, George Armstrong Custer, Crazy Horse--these and numerous others made appearances in Little Big Man. It's as if Berger had interviewed me before he wrote the book, asked me what I wanted to read, and went back into his study to create it.

Once I'd read Little Big Man, I started reading Berger's earlier novels (beginning with Crazy in Berlin, 1958, the first novel in what would become a tetralogy focusing on Carlo Reinhart, one of the most memorable characters in contemporary American fiction) and then--as I said--I bought each new one the day I saw it on the bookstore shelf and read it ASAP.

When I married Joyce in late 1969, I introduced her and her family to Berger--and she actually taught Little Big Man to some KSU frosh in the early 1970s, and her uncle Paul adored the novel as well; I think her parents read and loved it, too. I remember Uncle Paul asking me (afterwards): "You have any other books like that?" Well, no, there are no other books like that--but I felt exactly the way he did.  I want more books like that!

As far as I know, four of Berger's novels have made it to the silver screen. The most famous, of course, is Little Big Man, 1970, with Dustin Hoffman. I didn't really care for the film because it distorted one of my favorite novels so much. Another was Neighbors, 1981, with Belushi and Aykroyd (from SNL's Olympus), and I remember liking it--but saw it more than thirty years ago, so I think I'm going to have to hop online and see it again.

I learned that two other films are out there, as well--The Feud (1989--which I've ordered) and Meeting Evil (2012--which is now in my Netflix streaming queue). I'll report on them later.
When I posted the Times piece about Berger's death, I heard from a former student, Molly Young McCormick, who said she thought I had taught that novel to her middle school class back ... well, a long time ago. And that reminded me of something: I had not taught the full novel (that would have been professional suicide at the time--Berger can be ... naughty ... and violent), but I had used a passage from it. Just this moment I went to one of my (many) file drawers and found the folder labeled Comp--Conversation (LBM): Compositions--Conversation--Little Big Man. And inside I found the very worksheet I gave to my middle school students for years. (See below.) I also found an old transparency (remember them?) in that folder, one I'd also used in class for years, as well. I wanted my 7th and 8th graders to use this excerpt from Little Big Man to figure out the punctuation, capitalization, and paragraph rules for writing conversations.

In 1999, Berger published a sequel--The Return of Little Big Man. When I heard it was going to be released, I was ecstatic. It was as if a Beatles fan had just learned that a "lost" album had just appeared--or a Frankenstein fan learning that Mary Shelley had written a sequel--or ... a sequel to The Return of the King ... or ... you get the picture.

But I didn't care for it--not really Berger's fault, I guess. I mean, how could anything live up to my expectations? Before I'd read it, I'd agreed to lead a discussion about Little Big Man at the local library. In prep, I re-read LBM (loving it--loving it again).

The presentation/discussion was at 10:00 a.m., June 25, 1999--part of the Hudson Library's "The Last Friday Book Talks." I see in my journal for that day that I pretty much talked the whole time--showed slides, talked about Berger's other books, etc.--typical insecure, over-prepared teacher ... didn't allow much time for discussion.

That same summer of 1999 my father was dying. I was driving back and forth to Pittsfield, Mass., where he and my mom were. He was in and out of nursing and rehab facilities as he was navigating the final stages of his long, wonderful voyage. On Father's Day that year I thought about Little Big Man, about the death of Old Lodge Skins, the Cheyenne who was the father figure for the narrator Jack Crabb. Later, I wrote about that final Father's Day, about the death of my father, in my memoir Turning Pages: A Memoir of Books and Libraries and Loss (Kindle Direct, 2012). Here's some of what I wrote there ...

In my journal that final Father’s Day of my own father’s life I noted that I had once again wept at the death of Old Lodge Skins, the Cheyenne father figure for Jack Crabb.  Knowing his time is nigh, the old man, now blind, climbs to a noble height.  Rain is falling.  Berger himself, I wrote, must have wept as he wrote those wonderful words that Old Lodge Skins cries out on the top of the mountain.
And here they are—

Then he commenced to pray to the Everywhere Spirit in the same stentorian voice, never sniveling but bold and free.
“Thank you for making me a Human Being!  Thank you for helping me become a warrior!  Thank you for all my victories and for all my defeats.  Thank you for my vision, and for the blindness in which I saw further.”

Oh, that my own father—condemned to a wheelchair on his final Father’s Day—could have climbed a high mountain to cry his gratitude to his god—and then die satisfied in a soft rain.

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