Vital Parts: A Novel, page 1
PRAISE FOR VITAL PARTS
“Berger … covers ground like a hiccoughing tank and somehow manages to hit just about everything—hard, hilariously and with malicious intent.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“Massively humorous and immensely mature … It reads like some kind of masterpiece.” —Harper’s Magazine
“A wonderfully generous novel.” —The New York Times
“Confirms Berger’s rank as a major American novelist, one whose stylistic fecundity, psychological insight, and social knowledge are seemingly inexhaustible.” —Saturday Review
“Worth a dozen solid tomes on our scrambled American culture—youth, black, counter, square—because its wit is proportionate to its conception and its extravagant imagination to its unswerving common sense.” —Award-winning author Robert Gorham Davis
“Under the cold, correct surface of his prose—which, employed to render absurdity, creates the fundamental tension of his work—lies one of the most genuinely radical sensibilities now writing novels in this country.” —Commentary
To my friend and publisher,
Richard W. Baron
Reinhart unwrapped himself from the terry-cloth robe and hung it on the back of the bathroom door by means of the embroidered label (BIGGIE’S, FOR A LOT O’ GUY, trademark of a mailorder house specializing in the needs of the outsized), so obliterating the fun-house image of his gross nudity in the full-length mirror thereupon.
He padded to the toilet, planted his great hams on the turquoise cozy which covered the lid, supported his chins in his palms, and proceeded to review certain events of the day, beginning with the lunch-hour incident in the men’s room of Gino’s Restaurant.
Standing at one of the porcelain receptacles, he had read, on the wall just above the chromium flush-button, a ball-penned exhortation: MAKE LOVE NOT WAR AND MAKE IT WITH ME, signed “Chuck.” “P. S. If you’re interested, leave your number.”
Reinhart had glanced in a nervous circuit and seen only some matter-of-fact gent running a faucet over his glasses, shaking off the excess, and applying paper towel for the final polish. Having fitted the black plastic temple pieces, wide as tongue depressors, onto his ears, the stranger gave Reinhart a keen, stern look. Reinhart decided to punch him in the mouth if he turned out to be an importunate “Chuck.” But what if the guy was in turn entertaining suspicions of Reinhart?
The eyeglassed man caught himself in the act of leaving, and halfway through the door threw his head back at an odd angle and asked: “Don’t we know one another?”
Oh-oh, Reinhart thought instantly, being trapped by his preparations, here it comes, yet found, self-hatefully, that far from assuming a hostile righteousness, he felt weak and guilty.
The putative fag took two backward steps, clearing the doorway. “Sure,” said he, “you’re Reinhart. Bob Sweet: we went to high school together.”
After a couple of drinks Sweet insisted on buying him lunch. Reinhart had eaten no breakfast. He was a sporadic weight-watcher, and took advantage of opportunities that came his way, such as bottom-of-the-morning nausea. He was soon drunk on two Bloody Marys. Staring at Sweet’s smooth countenance he remembered the acne of school days. No trace of it remained, yet time was, Sweet had been famous for his pimples. Reinhart fell unbearably sad, and ordered another gore-colored drink. Sweet was talking of business. Reinhart had long since seen his youthful dream of a synthesis of commerce and culture go down the same drain as his build. Sweet was apparently a successful moneymaker, had a trim figure, and would have choked on his porterhouse at an allusion to the Divine Comedy. Which in fact Reinhart himself had not looked into in the more than twenty years since leaving college. Yet neither was Reinhart solvent. So if laugh there was, it wasn’t on Sweet.
Sweet said: “It’s just by chance you find me here today.” As if Reinhart had been looking for him; yet that was the style of the successful businessman. “It’s sheer luck,” Sweet went on. “Choked carb on my Comanche. Otherwise I would have been lunching in New York.” Then, correctly suspecting Reinhart did not get his drift, he said: “My airplane.”
“Yes,” Reinhart thickly replied. “The congestion at our airports is deplorable. Sometimes you are in a holding pattern for longer than the flight took.”
“No.” Sweet pointed with the bloodstained tip of his steak knife. “You haven’t got the picture. I’m not talking about the commercial carriers. I own my own aircraft.”
“You are doing well,” said Reinhart. “Your own plane.”
“Excuse me,” Sweet said. “It’s always ‘airplane’ or ‘aircraft.’ Listen to the pilot next time you’re up.”
For some reason the correction stung Reinhart, though it was understandable that any art or craft had its own jargon. And Sweet, whose businessman’s radar was tuned to detect the surface emotions of any vis-à-vis while his own features maintained a strategic, seemingly oblivious confidence, moved quickly to assuage the smart: “Nothing personal.”
It was just the wrong thing to say, though in fact Reinhart appreciated the sentiment behind it. He certainly would not have preferred that Sweet be inconsiderate. Yet Sweet’s very exercise of what might be termed a polite delicacy succeeded in reminding Reinhart of a much more serious matter than the discrepancy between Sweet’s worldly achievements and his own.
Glowering over the crust of his chicken potpie, from the starter-hole in which a pea peeped at him like a frog’s protuberant eye, he said: “Sweetie,” the old school name coming involuntarily to his lips, “Sweetie, I tell you this. There isn’t anything that isn’t personal.”
“My God,” said Sweet, “nobody’s called me that in years. We’re getting old, Reinhart.”
Reinhart blinded the imaginary batrachian with his fork and got a bit of alleged chicken as well, carried it to the hopper of his mouth, dumped it there, chewed, and swallowed this needless reminder that Gino’s really wasn’t big on anything but steak, and that happened to be too tough for Reinhart’s removable bridge.
Reinhart’s memory of Sweetie now came along in detail, dragged along, as it were, by the name. Not only had Sweet held the class championship in acne, and thus was popularly accused of being a fanatical masturbator, but Sandy O’Connell, a smaller boy, had in some altercation at a water fountain struck him in the chest and Sweetie, who must have been about fourteen, bent over and sobbed like a girl. After that he was for years the frequent target of feints to the sternal region, though certainly not by Reinhart, in whom physical victims always incited more disgust than sadism. If he had been asked, Well, what’s a frail guy to do, he would have answered, Build yourself up, as I did. Those were the days when Reinhart never questioned the American principle of self-improvement, for the simple reason that it worked for him. Get yourself a set of barbells from York, Pennsylvania, use them regularly, and in several years you can be a monolith of muscle. Then take no exercise for several decades and let the heat of life melt you into a lump of fat.
“Excuse me?” Sweet was asking. Reinhart gathered from this that “Reinhart” had said something aloud, as he was wont to do when drink separated the selves. At neighborhood parties “Reinhart” had been known to wander out to the kitchen and fondle the hostess’ behind, while Reinhart sat quietly in the corner of the living-room sofa wearing a thin, supercilious smile which distinguished him from the surrounding drones who talked of lawns and baseball, or, if the other sex, offspring, vacation prospects, and national figures who appalled them.
“I was pursuing a train of thought,” he said now to Sweet, a portmanteau phrase he had heard in some English movie once and since carried for this kind of occasion, which
“Acne,” said Sweet. “You said the word ‘acne.’ You were thinking of me as a kid.” He lifted a piece of steak and feinted at Reinhart with its striated redness. “No, don’t apologize. I don’t mind in the least. I’ll go you one better: I was the most wretched youth the world has ever known. I couldn’t bear to look in a mirror. And I was yellow as a lemon. You remember how you and the other guys used to beat me up.”
Reinhart protested. “I never touched you.” Nor had anyone else except Sandy O’Connell, unless it was in private and that would have been utterly out of character for those schoolboys, for whom harassment of a weakling was exclusively the theme for public demonstrations and not therefore serious.
“Listen,” Sweet cried jovially, “you don’t forget those things if you’re on the receiving end.” He vigorously toothed his morsel of meat with excellent white choppers that were obviously his own. “But have no fear I want to settle accounts at this late date.” Saying this, he was host to another emotion than bonhomie, and his eyes flickered across Reinhart’s scalp, which after all these years was yet crew-cut, but thick, by God thick still, that was one thing he had not lost, and because he had been fair the gradual graying had not upset the balance of color.
Reinhart gave him a halfhearted hard look. “Think you could take me now?”
Sweet turned genial again. “You could jail me if I laid a finger on you. I come under the law’s provision for prizefighters. I won my black belt last year in kung fu.”
Reinhart nodded and finished his third Bloody Mary, no longer tasting the Tabasco sauce as such; it seemed pure sulfuric acid.
“That’s a Chinese school of karate,” Sweet explained, “outlawed in some places. Your body is a lethal weapon.” He showed Reinhart a hand. “This will disintegrate a brick.”
Reinhart leaned forward to inspect it, and caught himself with his own soft paws lest he keep going for a faceful of potpie. “I don’t see a ridge of callus.”
Sweet snorted. “TV stuff! Built up with putty on pansy actors. My master has hands like a woman, yet can break five one-inch boards simultaneously with his thumb.”
“Listen, Sweet,” Reinhart said loudly, and then broke into a huge, idiotic grin. He was dimly conscious that nearby diners, attracted by the noise, now turned away at this facial show of harmlessness. They would, however, soon know revulsion when he rose and vomited on the floor. Thus he would have evoked from utter strangers three distinct emotions. He still had a certain power, if mean and within the reach of any stray dog. The thought encouraged him to hang in there a while yet and milk his wretchedness for Sweetie alone.
“Listen,” he repeated, “and I must admit I don’t recall your first name. I can’t keep saying Sweetie because you don’t have acne any more and you are rich and tough and own your own airplane—”
“Bob,” said Sweet, who sat stanchly concrete behind a swirling screen of Reinhart’s sudden doubts that this colloquy was real.
“Mine’s Carl now, though my parents named me Carlo, but my wife, whom you might remember as Genevieve Raven, she’s younger than us and never lived here when small but worked for Claude Humbold, the realtor, after the war, she never liked the name Carlo, said it sounded queer …”
“OK, Carl,” Sweet said, grinning derisively. There was a time when Reinhart could hold his liquor, could be drunk as a skunk and never let on, and friends would attest to this next day. Sweet, who had begun as a middle-aged anonymity in the men’s room, looked younger and younger. He wore a uniform tan; his conspicuous glasses were stylish and did not signify infirmity. When Sweetie and Reinhart were young, specs gave a boy a pansy look. Reinhart had almost forgotten that. He kept coming back to the touchstone of his youth and rubbing things on it to see whether they were precious.
“Bob,” he said sloppily, “you don’t have to pull that karotty stuff on me—”
Sweet interrupted. “I hate to do it again, Carl, but it’s ‘ka-ra-tay,’ all syllables evenly stressed and a little trill on the r if you can manage it. Kara—empty. Te—hand. ‘Karotty’ is TV-talk.”
“Well, Bob, that’s appropriate,” Reinhart said quietly. “That’s all I’ve got, Bob. That’s the only excitement and color in my life—television. And don’t worry. Even if you were still pimpled little skinny Sweetie you could take me with one hand now. You could also buy me from petty cash.”
Now that Sweet received the unconditional surrender, he was as benevolent as was his country with its fallen enemies. He said sympathetically: “Don’t you think you should get some food into your stomach? Why don’t I have that mess hauled away and get you a steak instead?”
“Bob, I couldn’t chew it. I have to mince my meat before I can get it down. My teeth are in bad shape.”
“Good red meat,” said Sweet, swallowing the last of his, which in fact was largely a yellow gristle which it did not help Reinhart’s digestion to see being milled behind Sweet’s flashing incisors. “Good red meat never hurt anybody.”
“You married, Bob?”
“I was,” said Sweet, attacking the salad, which glistened with oil. “I may do it again when I get old.”
Even in self-pity Reinhart lied about his age, a habit of several years’ standing. “I am old. I’m forty.”
For a moment Sweet was taken in by Reinhart’s desolation. “That’s funny,” he said, frowning behind the horn rims. “You and I were in the same class, yet I’ll be forty-five in November.”
Reinhart was beyond embarrassment at the moment. “All right, forty-four then. What does it matter? I’m finished, pal. I’m a living corpse.” He snapped his fingers at the passing waitress. “Hey, you, bring me another.”
She skidded, backed up, and stated evenly: “I don’t have to take that sort of a thing, sir. You can request but don’t demand like I was your servant.”
Worse, she was not the hard-pressed hag of his own age which, not having inspected her earlier, he assumed she would be. She was young, and had a lovely hard pair, and though she remonstrated with him he was to her only a rude abstraction. “I’m a human being,” she said redundantly.
He tried to smile, saying: “I’m not.”
She was even more winsome with her lip curled. He took a swinish delight in the exchange, and as she marched indignantly away, he sneered for Sweet’s benefit and muttered: “Snotty bitch.”
“Get hold of yourself, Carl,” his host said sharply. “There’s no profit in that.”
A heavy hand touched Reinhart’s shoulder. He turned his head to look at it and saw a thick growth of swarthy hair amidst which flickered the gold of an almost hidden ring. Far above loomed the Mafia face, blue with close-shaved beard, of Gino, whose restaurant this was.
With a thug’s courtesy, Gino said: “I wanna speak to yuh in private, sir.”
“Sure, Gino.” Reinhart was proud to be singled out by the proprietor of a popular establishment. In these parts influential people sucked up to restaurateurs, maître d’s, and bartenders. It was a prestige-making thing to address such worthies by name and hear your own in return. Though having run up a modest bill, Reinhart had not yet got on the top terms with Gino, but now was apparently the time. And just when he had seemingly reached bottom. He excused himself to Sweet, already regretting he had bared his soul to the pimply schoolmate reborn.
He followed the thickset figure and managed to keep erect while threading through the tables, from almost every one of which some diner hailed Gino. Reinhart recognized many of these people. He had lived his life in the region, and most of the local businessmen ate lunch here. He nodded at certain faces, said a word to others, touched a shoulder now and again. The responses were not enthusiastic. They were a think-small, provincial lot, else they would have been in New York or Chicago, but no doubt they were perceptive enough to catch the assurance behind Reinhart’s superficial amenities, for he was on his way up again after a series of descents which would have ruined a weaker spirit.
He said: “It isn’t easy to get good waitresses nowadays and they don’t come no better than June. If you was not in the company of that gentleman I would kick your stinking teeth out, you lousy slob. I don’t want to never see you in my place again.”
Reinhart held his temper manfully. “There’s been a misunderstanding, Gino. The young lady didn’t catch what I said. There’s a lot of noise out there—”
Gino’s eyes closed slowly and did not open until he had finished saying: “Any man who talks dirty to a woman is a filthy skunk, period.” Then his lids rolled swiftly up with an almost audible clangor. “Now you getchurass out of here.”
“Tell you what I’ll do,” Reinhart persisted. “I’ll write a nice tip on the bill.”
Gino, who had seen Reinhart on countless noontimes, had greeted him on entrance and detained his parting with an oily expression of trust that he had enjoyed the meal, now professed to be dumbfounded. “You sign here? I never seen you before in my life, you bum.” He seized the chest of Reinhart’s wash-and-wear suit and forced him into a chair. “Don’t make a move, you.” He fisted one of his two telephones and shook it at Reinhart’s face, then snarled his pegteeth into the mouthpiece.
“Name’s Carl Reinhart, for God’s sake,” cried the man who had put a signature to that effect on scores of lunch checks.
Gino slammed the instrument home. “Reinhart! So you are Reinhart, the biggest deadbeat on the list.” He laughed in a savage scream. “Reinhart, Jesus Christ, Reinhart.” Wonderingly he addressed a glossy leather-bound photograph on his desk—Reinhart was behind it, so could not see its subject—“He owes me a hunnert and eighty-three dollars. The collection agents can’t find him. Where is he? In my fucking restaurant, eating my fucking food, signing more of my fucking checks!” Gino’s face was a mélange of several colors and his voice that of a machine which wanted grease.
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