Thomas Berger: Writer who crossed genres but was best known for his exploration of the Wild West in 'Little Big Man'


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The Independent Online

Thomas Berger was a witty and eclectic author best known for reimagining the Wild West in the historical novel Little Big Man. He also mastered genres ranging from detective stories to domestic farce. One of the last major American authors to have served in the Second World War, Berger wrote more than 20 books, including the autobiographical "Rinehart" series, a Little Big Man sequel and The Feud, about warring families in a 1930s Midwest community.

Little Big Man, his third novel (1964), was the wry tale of 111-year-old Jack Crabb, who claims he was abducted by Indians as a boy and fought with the Cherokees in the Battle of Little Big Horn. It was adapted into a 1970 film starring Dustin Hoffman. Berger began the book, he said, with "the intention of comprising in one man's personal story all the themes of the Old West that have since become legendary."

Other Berger novels made into films include Neighbors, starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, and Meeting Evil, with Samuel L Jackson and Luke Wilson. He was never as famous as such contemporaries and fellow veterans as Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut, but admirers regard him as a comic moralist equally attuned to the American past and present.

"Berger's books are accessible and funny and immerse you in the permanent strangeness of his language and attitude, perhaps best encapsulated by Berger's own self-definition as a 'voyeur of copulating words'," Jonathan Lethem wrote. "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, and philosophical allegories [Killing Time].

He was born in Cincinnati, the son of a school business manager and a housewife. "Very early in life," he said, "I discovered that for me reality was too often either dull or obnoxious, and while I did play all the popular games that employ a ball, lower hooks into the water, and, especially fire guns, I preferred the pleasures of the imagination to those of experience."

He used his wartime experiences for his debut novel Crazy in Berlin and worked in libraries as a young man and for a variety of publications. At a workshop at The New School for Social Research, he met fellow students like Jack Kerouac, Mario Puzo and William Styron and a painter, Jeanne Redpath, who became his wife. He wrote short stories at first but believed he needed more space "to create my alternative reality." He disputed the idea that he was a comic novelist: "I ... have never thought of my work as being funny except incidentally. I write as I do because that's the way I instinctively look at things."


Thomas Berger, writer: born Cincinnati, Ohio 29 July 1924; married Jeanne Redpath; died Nyack, New York 13 July 2014.