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IN BRIEF

FICTION : ORRIE'S STORY by Thomas Berger (Little, Brown: $18.95; 276 pp.)

November 11, 1990|Michael Harris

In Thomas Berger's small-town Yankee version of Greek myth, Augie Mencken (Agamemnon) doesn't go off to fight at Troy; he pretends to join the Army in World War II but actually works at a defense plant in another state and sends home money with faked reports of his heroism in battle.

Augie's wife, Esther (Clytemnestra), openly consorts with his slum-lord cousin E.G. (Aegisthus). His son, Orrie (Orestes), is a freshman in college. His older daughter, Gena (Iphigenia), has run away to Hollywood. His younger daughter, Ellie (Electra), is a skinny kid whose eyeglasses are held together with adhesive tape. The chorus consists of the regulars down at the Idle Hour Bar & Grill.

The plot, though, is the same. Augie returns home to be murdered in his bath by his wife and his wife's lover. Egged on by the vengeful Ellie, Orrie kills them both with a 12-gauge shotgun.

Berger, author of "Little Big Man" and the Reinhart novels, doesn't shuttle back and forth between the mythical and the mundane, as John Updike did in "The Centaur." Except for the names, in fact, he leaves no evidence of his literary borrowing. So what is he up to, besides making use of a time-tested story?

The answer seems to lie in what some have taken to be Berger's misanthropy, though it's a more complex attitude than that. "Orrie's Story" resembles those earlier comedies of mutual incomprehension, "Sneaky People" and "The Feud," in which the omniscient author reveals that all of his characters are riddled with lust and chicanery and with a wacky but genuine innocence. Every one of them is a type, right down to his or her innermost fantasies, yet Berger dares us to say that they aren't just as interesting as any other writer's "original" characters--or even that there is a difference.

So too here. The classical rule is that tragedy, to be tragedy, requires kings and heroes. By resetting the Orestes myth in working-class America, Berger diminishes and satirizes it, of course, but only to a point. Can we say that the people in this novel lack dignity, or that the Greek story can't also be a thoroughly American one? No. Which means that Berger has won another dare: What he did with types, he can do with archetypes just as well.

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