It’s only January and I’ve just finished my first disappointing book of the year, Neighbors by Thomas Berger. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve watched the film version many, many times and found it close to perfect. So I chalk up this experience to one of the rare times when I enjoyed the film version more than the book.
The premise of the book is fairly simple: overweight middle-aged Earl Keese and his disaffected wife, Enid live out in the suburbs, at the end of the road. There are only two houses on the street and the other house has been empty for some time. One Friday night, just as Earl and Enid settle down for another boring weekend stuck out in the middle of nowhere with just each other for company, the doorbell rings and Earl opens the front door to his new neighbour, the turban-clad, busty and strangely perverse Ramona. And then there’s her equally strange husband, Harry.
The new neighbours represent a diversion for Enid and Earl, a break in the routine, but things go wrong almost immediately. For one thing, Enid has obviously already met Harry and Ramona already, but hasn’t said a word about it. Then Enid denies that there’s any dinner to offer their new neighbours–even though Earl catches her feeding a huge piece of meat to a wandering wolfhound. But things take a turn for the worse when Harry cadges Earl’s car keys along with enough cash to get some take out food for the two couples. Earl knows that there are no take outs open within a reasonable radius, but he’s coerced by sheer politeness into handing the money over to Harry anyway.
Most of us have had annoying neighbours at one time or another. Neighbours can make our lives living hell if they’re unreasonable people, and then some neighbours seem to jump to the conclusion that proximity means instant friendship. New neighbours potentially represent new problems, so it’s important to set boundaries at the first sign of imposition or pushiness. Earl knows these unspoken rules, yet at the same time he’s hampered by politeness, social restraints and also by Enid’s subversive behaviour. Enid should be, in theory at least, on Earl’s side against the neighbors during the madness and mayhem that takes place at the Keese’s formerly boring home. But in spite of Harry and Ramona’s blatantly bizarre behaviour, Enid insists repeatedly that Earl is in the wrong.
Over the course of a single weekend, Earl’s life falls apart; his wife inexplicably sides with Harry, and Elaine, his spoiled brat of a daughter returns home after being booted out of university. Every single illusion Earl had about his life is furiously stripped away through his insane, outrageous social encounters with Harry and Ramona.
What is it exactly that Harry and Ramona do to Earl? First they break all the politeness rules by a variety of tactics including : lying, intruding, and ignoring any accepted societal boundaries. The acts committed by Harry and Ramona are outrageous, and include property destruction, accusations of sexual misconduct, and blackmail. Earl has the option of ignoring the behaviour or throwing his new neighbours out. He applies a combination of both tactics and the evening explodes into a night of vandalism, imprisonment, and impersonation. Are Harry and Ramona seriously deranged or are they just out for cheap thrills?
Here’s Ramona’s first appearance at the front door:
Hello, he said, showing a pleasant face, “and what may I do for you?”
“Anything you like,” said the person on his doorstep. In age she had apparently crossed Keese’s arbitrary line between girl and young woman. He had not been prepared for her literalization of his greeting, which was a piece of standard usage and not a cliche to be derided. Nevertheless, with his bias towards a creature of her sex and years, he decided that he was himself at fault and he listened smilingly to the punch line which completed her opening speech: “the problem is what you want in return.”
With this opener, Ramona sets the stage for the rest of her interactions with Earl. He’s inhibited by politeness and she cuts through the crap implying that he lusts over her bodacious body, and of course, while Ramona breaks the politeness rules, she’s also perfectly correct in her assessment of Earl’s thoughts about her.
Neighbours takes many of the staples of urban life: the home in the suburbs, suburban isolation, competitiveness between neighbours, and the ineffectiveness of the modern male and subverts these ideas, creating a nightmarish and yet bizarre, black comedy. Earl is the beleaguered Everyman whose home is a castle–but it’s a castle under siege by a couple of loonies.
I don’t want to spend a great deal of time going on about why the film is better than the book. Brilliantly cast, the film succeeds as a bizarre, off-kilter comedy. The visuals of the film really help too, and there’s a sense of an escalation of events culminating in Earl’s liberation from a miserable, mediocre marriage and a boring suffocating life with its highlight of Friday night leftovers. Watching the film first probably ruined the book for me. But at the same time, I suspect that even without the lingering memories I have of the film, I would still find the book a disappointment. The book is much darker than the film (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing) but some of the plot becomes unfortunately somewhat repetitive as Earl engages in a type of urban warfare with his new neighbours. In the film, Earl’s continuing engagement with the loony Harry (Vic in the film version) and Ramona makes sense, but in the book, it’s sometimes difficult to accept why Earl continues to plunge back into the games concocted by Harry and Ramona. The book drops early hints that Earl may have a problem with reality, yet this isn’t explored. There are also a few points in the novel when Enid and Elaine’s behaviour cannot be explained even with all the weirdness afoot. Ultimately the book doesn’t maintain the level of insanity to adequately explain why Earl continues to reengage with the neighbors when he really should just slam the door and go to bed. Thus Earl’s interactions become an endless, repetitive loop.
I’d intended to read Neighbors for many years, and I’d actually kept the book in reserve. Now I think I’ll dust off the film….