NEW YORK (AP) â€” Thomas Berger, the witty & eclectic novelist who reimagined the American West in the historical yarn "Little Big Man" & mastered genres ranging from detective stories to domestic farce, has died at age 89.
Berger's literary agent, Cristina Concepcion, said Monday that he died in Nyack Hospital on July 13, just days before his 90th birthday. He had been in failing health, Concepcion said.
One of the last major authors to have served in World War II, Berger wrote more than 20 books, including the autobiographical "Rinehart" series, a "Little Big Man" sequel & "The Feud," approximately warring families in a 1930s Midwest community. "The Feud" was recommended for the 1984 Pulitzer Prize by the fiction jury yet was overruled by the board of directors, which awarded another Depression-era novel, William Kennedy's "Ironweed."
p>Berger's biggest mainstream success was "Little Big Man," published in 1964 & an ultra-wry tale of 111-year-old Jack Crabb, who alleges that he was abducted by Indians as a young boy & after fought with the Cheyenne in the Battle of Little Big Horn. The novel was adapted into a 1970 movie of the same name, starring Dustin Hoffman & directed by Arthur Penn. A leading American Indian writer, Sherman Alexie, would cite "Little Big Man" as an influence on his screenplay for the 1998 movie "Smoke Signals."
Other Berger novels made into films include "Neighbors," which starred John Belushi & Dan Aykroyd, & "Meeting Evil," featuring Samuel L. Jackson & Luke Wilson.
Never as famous as such contemporaries & fellow veterans as Norman Mailer & Kurt Vonnegut, Berger became the kind of writer who made fans feel special just for knowing approximately him. Admirers regarded him as unique & underappreciated, a comic moralist equally attuned to the American past & present.
"Berger's books are accessible & comical & immerse you in the permanent strangeness of his language & attitude, perhaps best encapsulated by Berger's own self-definition as a 'voyeur of copulating words,'" Jonathan Lethem wrote in a 2012 essay. "He offers a book for every predilection: if you like westerns, there's his classic, 'Little Big Man'; so, too, has he written fables of suburban life ('Neighbors'), crime stories ('Meeting Evil'), fantasies, small-town 'back-fence' stories of Middle American life, & philosophical allegories ('Killing Time')."
Berger was born in Cincinnati, the son of a public school business manager & a housewife. He was a dreamer, seeking out new worlds on the nearest bookshelf. His favorite works included the legends of King Arthur and, since he was born close enough to the 19th century to hear firsthand accounts, histories of the Battle of Little Big Horn.
"Very early in life," he once said, "I discovered that for me reality was too often either dull or obnoxious, & while I did play all the popular games that employ a ball, lower hooks into the water, and, especially fire guns, I preferred the pleasure of the imagination to those of experience, & I read incessantly."
Berger served in the Army from 1943 to 1946 & used some of his experiences in Germany for his debut novel, "Crazy in Berlin." He was an undergraduate at the University of Cincinnati, then a graduate student at Columbia University, where he studied under the critic Lionel Trilling & attempted a book on George Orwell, a lasting influence.
Berger worked in libraries as a young man & for a variety of publications, from The New York Times Index to Popular Science Monthly. At a workshop at The New School for Social Research, Berger met such fellow students as Jack Kerouac, Mario Puzo & William Styron & a painter, Jeanne Redpath, who became his wife. He wrote short stories in his 20s yet disliked the art form, believing he needed more space "to create my alternative reality."
"Little Big Man" was his third novel. As he told American Heritage magazine, he began the book in 1962 with "the intention of comprising in one man's personal story all the themes of the Old West that have since become legendary."
Jack Crabb was based on a fictional character, the blowhard Kit Carson in William Saroyan's play "The Time of Your Life."
"The book's appeal traces to two main currents: one, it's a tall tale in the tremendous American tradition of Mark Twain, and, second, it's hip, modern & comical & anticipates appreciation & understanding of a vanished Indian culture by decades," the critic Allen Barra wrote for Salon.com in 2006.
In more recent novels, Berger satirized the frustrations of contemporary domestic life. In "Best Friends," he contrasted the overachieving Roy Courtright & the underachieving Sam Grandy, with Grandy's wife trapped in the middle. "The Houseguest" was a comic gangster story in which a thug ingratiates himself with a Long Island family, then keeps them hostage â€” at least they think he does. In "Adventures of the Artificial Woman," a technician unlucky in love constructs an ideal partner, only to have her leave him & become a movie star.
"I … have never thought of my work as being comical except incidentally," Berger once said, disputing the idea that he was a comic novelist. "I write as I do because that's the way I instinctively look at things."
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Source: “Associated Press”