The great American novelist Thomas Berger died just over a week ago. His obituary appeared in the New York Times yesterday. I was a big fan of Berger’s work and although I wouldn’t claim to have known him at all, we did exchange one or two emails. I certainly never knew anything about his eating or drinking habits.
I found it interesting that in that Times obituary there was a quotation from his best known novel Little Big Man. Jack Crabb, the book’s hero, who wanders the American West, having been “adopted” by the Cheyenne when he was 10 years old, describes some early gastronomic experiences:
“The antelope chunks weren’t too well done. Indians don’t have a prejudice against grease, on the one hand; and on the other, they weren’t given in those days to using salt. Along with the meat was some chokecherries all cooked to a mush, and a root or two that didn’t have a taste until you swallowed it and it fell all the way to your belly and gave off the after effect of choking on sand.”
I’ll leave it to somebody else to write a PhD on the role of food in Berger’s fiction but I’m sure it’s a fruitful area. To remind myself of Tom, I dipped around in a few of his novels, and references to food seemed to leap up at me from every page I looked at.
In Sneaky People, the first Berger novel I ever read, and probably still my favorite for that reason, Buddy Sandifer, the largely unlikeable “hero,” is having trouble with his mistress Laverne. He asks her to make him a sandwich, and she is pretty snippy about it.
“'We didn’t know we would be serving lunch today sir, Laverne said bending to open the hydrator. “We can make a tomato sandwich with lettuce and mayonnaise.
'That’s woman’s food,' Buddy said."
In the first chapter of Neighbors, Berger writes of his protagonist Earl Keese,
'He wandered disconsolately back to the living room. She had drunk the remainder of the white wine. He possessed nothing more in the way of an alcoholic beverage, and there was only frozen succotash for dinner. His watch assured him that the village market had closed an hour ago and that the liquor store would lock up in half a minute.”
I think that’s as great an image of suburban angst as anything in modern fiction.
Neighbors was made into a notorious movie starring John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd. It was a nightmare shoot by all accounts, and the end result was much hated when it came out, though there are signs that some people are now revaluing it and liking it rather more.
In Reinhart’s Women, the comic hero, Carl Reinhart has thrown himself into cooking, it being "the only thing in life he had ever done well." He has invited his new girlfriend over for lunch so she can meet his daughter. It all ends in quiet, civilized disaster, naturally, but some decent cooking skills are on display. Reinhart is making oeufs en meurette.
“He tasted the liquid, which had reduced somewhat in the simmering. Despite the sugar it was still slightly tinged with acidity, but this condition would surely be corrected when the cooked mushrooms were added. When that was done it was time to poach the eggs in the perfumed bath of wine and stock and bacon and onions and garlic.”
Authors being what they are, Berger might well have lifted this straight from a cookery book, but I like to think he was a proper food lover. Actually I suspect that oeufs en meurette is one of those dishes that everybody is impressed by without ever actually liking. Another great symbol of suburban angst right there.