At its core, the story in Best Friends, Thomas Berger’s 22nd novel, is simple — and ancient. Two men, one woman. Friendship and betrayal. Lust, despair and death. Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere. Mark, Tristram and Isolde. This time around, we recognize the outlines of the classic tale, but as in the best of Berger’s previous novels — Little Big Man, Neighbors, The Feud, Who Is Teddy Villanova? — the tale is at once familiar, and more than slightly skewed.
Sam Grandy and Roy Courtright, both in their mid-30s, have been friends since childhood, despite their wildly divergent personalities. While Sam is a tubby, geeky, steak-and-potatoes spendthrift, married and seemingly happy in his unselfconscious hedonism, Roy is a handsome, weightlifting gourmand with an exotic-sports-car dealership and a deserved reputation as a skirt chaser. Two men who, “in twenty years of friendship, had never shaken hands.” When Sam ends up in the hospital with heart trouble, Roy and Kristin, Sam’s ambitious and accomplished wife (who has always been cool toward Roy), begin to see more and more of one another — ostensibly out of mutual concern for Sam, but clearly with less magnanimous aims in their hearts.
Berger, who has always been at his best when helping his readers empathize with his characters’ all-too-recognizable flaws, here masterfully matches the book’s language with the arc of the tale: Roy, especially, is described in phrases perfectly tuned to his slow awakening as friend, lover, traitor and penitent. Early on, as Roy moves woodenly through his days and nights (one could hardly imagine a more cautious libertine), Berger’s phrasing is impeccable, but oddly stilted. As Roy’s world turns upside down and he begins to glean the depth — or rather, the lack of depth — of his own self-absorption, the book’s language eases, as if physically and rhythmically thawing.
It would be easy to read Best Friends as a parable — the unnamed town that serves as the setting is a fairy-tale melding of the bucolic and the urbane, of innocence and experience — but it is, in fact, a compact, accomplished novel of ideas. That Berger’s take on adultery, loyalty, friendship and myriad other intangibles is both deeply satirical and deeply felt is perhaps the book’s real wonder.
BEST FRIENDS| By THOMAS BERGER | Simon & Schuster | 224 pages | $24 hardcover