Reinhart as Hero and Clown

Article excerpt

I

Carlo Reinhart, like his creator Thomas Berger, was born in 1924 of German-American parents in or near Cincinnati, Ohio. Like Berger, Reinhart served in the army during the second world war and, home again, took advantage of the GI Bill of Rights to go back to college although, unlike Berger, he never graduated. There are probably a great many other similarities between author and character including certain attitudes, habits of mind, a preoccupation with the paraphernalia of daily living. Reinhart's eye for detail is evident in Berger's non-Reinhart novels, and both the ruins in which he sets his sexual/social fantasy Regiment of Women (1973) and the small indignities that beset the hero of his private-eye burlesque Who Is Teddy Villanova? (1977) reflect a continuing response to surroundings that he had already characterized in Crazy in Berlin (1958): "What was extraordinary was that America could be so ugly-dull." Berger, like Reinhart, is concerned with the dangerous uncertainty of human relationships, familial, sexual, collegial, with the problem of identity, with the slipperiness of truth, with the inefficacy of language, with the authoritarianism of self-righteous idealism, with aging and death, but, like Reinhart, he can easily be distracted by the petty annoyances of restaurant decor, advertising slogans, television programing. The quotation above is presumably Reinhart's insight, brought on by a juxtaposition of a remembered Ohio and the Europe in which he finds himself, but the accompanying list of negative (and cliched) responses to the surface of American life go beyond Reinhart's experience. Faced with some phenomena, Berger and Reinhart work as a double, but sometimes Berger seems to elbow Reinhart offstage as in the lengthy and gratuitous parody of a Scandinavian art film in Vital Parts (1970) or the description of a ladies' magazine story in Reinhart in love (1962), a routine joke lacking both the vigor and the dramatic force that Tennessee Williams gave it in The Glass Menagerie.

Carlo Reinhart was born, after all, not in 1924, but when Thomas Berger first put the character on paper. Whatever autobiographical elements, statistical and spiritual, go into the Reinhart novels, the creator and the created are not one, as the slippage cited above indicates. "I write to amuse and conceal myself," Berger said in Contemporary Novelists, amusing and concealing himself in the comment. I have no inclination to search out the hidden Berger in the Reinhart saga. There is an obvious tactical value in the author's sharing age and background with his protagonist; he is better able to understand his character's responses to new ideas and new modes of behavior, even when and if those responses are not precisely his. This is particularly true of the last two novels, in which Reinhart catches up with Berger, for the publication dates of Vital Parts and Reinhart's Women (1981) follow within a year or two the time of the events they recount. In the first two novels, Berger is writing in the late 1950s, early 1960s of Reinhart in the immediate postwar 1940s. It is not Reinhart as Berger, then, that interests me here--or that interests most readers, I assume--except to the extent that that identification is an instance of Reinhart as all of us. Often as infuriating as he is likable, Reinhart has a way of voicing, silently for the most part, prejudices that we pretend to have put behind us and of performing with an ineptitude to which we are clearly superior--on our good days. "You are a fool, a good fool, a kind fool," Lori Bach tells Reinhart in Crazy in Berlin, and twenty years later in Vital Parts his own accusing inner voice says, "You're still the same old horse's ass." The strength of the Reinhart books is that the reader keeps recognizing his similarities to the good fool, the horse's ass, when he would prefer to identify with the poet-philosopher hero that Reinhart spends so many years imagining hidden within his untidy mind and body. …