Thomas Berger’s Robert Crews
A Drunk Makes Good in the Wilderness
Robert Crews is a witty, patient, upbeat castaway story.1 It is faithful to the spirit of the castaway story: the castaway’s use of practical reason, firstly to survive, with many slip-ups and miscarriages, and then, with growing confidence, to make something like a home. Various tasks are carefully detailed: making a shelter, and later a hut that is more or less waterproof; fishing; cooking; making a raft; not getting lost, though Crews never really succeeds at this last. Robinson Crusoe is borne in mind: as we will see in a moment, we meet with the discovery of the footprint, a version of a famous and often-imitated moment in Defoe, and we get the relationship with a Friday; and of course there is the Crews/Crusoe pun. But there are two twists that make variations from the classic castaway tale: first, the castaway (Robert Crews himself) is a drunk, obnoxious, a failure at the basic tasks of civilized life – making a living, getting on with other people, such as your wives (he has had three); second, he encounters a woman, also lost in the wilderness, and also in trouble, though not a failure in civilized life to the same spectacular degree as he is. She has been on a camping trip with her husband, and her trouble is that he has tried to kill her and this has understandably made her suspicious of men in general, and of herself (since he married a man who later tried to kill her: looks like poor judgment).
After their meeting, which is at first a confused one, the business of being in the wilderness changes its quality, because his main task (and hers – but we mostly have his point of view) is to get on with another person, more than to solve practical problems. In this part of the novel, making do in the wilderness mainly figures as the way their co-operation deepens into friendship and then love, finally secured when they meet her husband, who turns out to be even more obnoxious than was Crews before his work in the wilderness changed him. The second half of the book delicately traces the growth of a romance. The two castaways together work out how to cook fish on a hot rock or how to prevent rain dripping through the roof of their hutch, and the lovers’ quarrel (traditional in romances) concerns whether she should have eaten mushrooms which might be poisonous, and is settled when he agrees to eat them too. Robert Crews is bookended (if a book can be bookended) by reminders of how unpleasant, petty and inept people can be in ordinary social life – first, Crews getting drunk at a very early hour while flying up to a fishing lodge with a trio of others in a light plane; then, after the plane has crashed, the other three have died in the crash, and Crews has gone through his wilderness experience and his time with Ellen, their meeting with the nasty, arrogant and petty Michael (the husband) towards the end of the story. The bookends say that ordinary social life often brings out the worst in us. What the middle section of Robert Crews does is, firstly, revive the value of the simple pleasures and necessities, such as eating and sleeping, that the task of survival offers to any castaway; and secondly, in the later period with Ellen, revive some of the easily forgotten or discounted social values: kindness, discretion (as when Robert and Ellen allow each other privacy for washing and defecating), honesty (Robert has a lot of shameful things to mention about his past life; Ellen is at first inclined to withhold the truth of what has happened to her – she at first invents an assault on herself and her husband by a wild man of the woods to explain why she is now alone and wounded), and honour. Honour doesn’t often figure in contemporary novels, but it is brought to life in this one.
Now I’ll detail some of these effects and variations, and also point to the variations on Robinson Crusoe that I mentioned above. There’s no need for a lot of interpretation – the novel is clearly written and reflects clearly on what it is doing; this was Berger’s nineteenth novel and the experience shows.
I guess some readers might feel that Crews converts from hopeless social drag to reasonably alert survivalist rather quickly, but the novel emphasises the rupture between this and his former lives (‘What he had been in civilization had no useful bearing on what he must do here.’ 43; ‘this was quite another universe’, 51). What he has been has suddenly become irrelevant; he doesn’t even take a drink out of the gallon jug of vodka he manages to salvage, along with other, more useful things. And the novel is good on his early blunders and comic improvisations. His first efforts at fishing yield a few minnows – he eats them all, too quickly, then he vomits them up (there’s a hint that overeating is a sort of after-echo of his drinking too much, though it’s also obvious that someone in his situation will always be hungry). This fiasco prompts him to find cleaner water to fish in, and practise careful trout fishing. (He has salvaged a rod and a lot of useful line from the downed plane, though he was not strong enough at the time to extricate the corpses of the others.) He has an encounter with an inquisitive bear, thrusting its muzzle a few inches from him as he sleeps – dismisses this as a dream – discovers its broad footprints the next morning. When the bear returns on another night, he disconcerts it by singing to it and it retreats; probably not a reliable technique for discouraging bears, but he is never going to survive by keeping to the rules, since he doesn’t know what they are. Lots of the expedients he tries (for instance, making a kind of pot of birch bark in which to boil fish) are dimly remembered from TV documentaries. He learns to live in the moment; nature is unpredictable and dangerous and you must be alert at every moment: ‘you have to notice everything (50)’; ‘Nature can’t be trusted.’ (201). So his abrupt release from civilized life does not put him into a benign nature, but into one that demands constant alertness as well as hard work. By the time he meets Ellen he is a mess, a ‘swarthy derelict’ (75) living in a hovel, but reasonably competent at surviving. The encounter with Ellen will offer new challenges and a reintroduction to the social – dealing with other people and their complications and wounds.
It is preceded by discovery of a footprint, traditional sign in castaway novels that other people are about to make an entrance:
‘The footprint. Smaller than his own.
His first emotion, which only a moment later seemed nonsensical, was fright.
He fearfully examined the landscape, including even that on the far side of the lake. …He found neither another footprint nor any other evidence humankind had ever visited the area. …
But why had he been afraid? Perhaps because he had been taken unawares, and he had now been in the wilderness long enough to believe by instinct, not reason, that any surprise was more likely to be bad news than good. He must become a person again…’ (120)
Actually he is right in his fear (just as Crusoe is in his fear at the footprint he found) in that there proves to be a possible murderer loose in the woods. Later (191) he reasons that it could not have been either Ellen or Michael who made the footprint, so it has no direct bearing on the plot. Berger has inserted the footprint scene so as to echo and adapt Robinson Crusoe.
There follows a confused episode of theft and deception: he is dealing with humans again, not bears or trout, and humans bring cunning and hurt. He finds he has been robbed while away from his hovel; he tracks the supposed thief to a cave, then falls asleep and wakes to find an angry woman threatening him with his own knife. It emerges that she wasn’t the thief – that must have been the man who attacked her husband and wounded her. They set off together, Crews careful and respectful, the woman silent and unresponsive, no doubt traumatised. They find her campsite, now quite deserted, and it is only at this point that she discloses that there was no assailant from the woods; the man who shot and wounded her was her husband. She had agreed to go camping in the effort to save the marriage – instead they quarrelled and he lost his temper.
Now that matters are clearer they can get to know each other and we learn more about each of them. She (we don’t yet know her name) is the more cagey, or the more recently wounded, as she has to come to terms with what Michael did to her; Crews has been thinking through the wreck of his former life, and now talks about it. He mostly does this through reminiscences of his ex-wives, and though they have their faults they turn out to be interesting women who must surely have seen something in him, if something he has ceased to believe in himself. ‘If you ever sobered up, [says Molly, one of the wives] you would understand that all your cynicism was fake.’ (133.)
Thinking things over in the light of what happened to Ellen, he is able to tell himself that at least he was never violent against women, though he often got into (losing) fights with men. ‘At least he was not nearly so dishonorable as he could have been’ (180). Honour is an important value in the novel, but he is starting from something of a low base, as far as ethical conduct is concerned. The business of making do in the woods, with a companion (earlier he was simply lonely), one who needs to be treated gently – all this gives plenty of opportunities. And of course she attracts him from the start – his tiny observation of a twig fetchingly caught in her hair, ‘a kind of wilderness jewellery’ (150) is enough – this is not long after their first rough, mistaken meeting.
Their work on material things as they journey together is no longer for survival, but for pleasure, and also relief, as alternative to talking about Michael and what she feels about him – anger? hatred? some love, still? Apparently she is not sure. They sleep apart on their first night – in fact, nervous about what he still supposes is the murderous assailant at large, he keeps watch and doesn’t sleep at all; later they spend a lot of time waterproofing their hut, weaving branches together and so on. Sharing labour makes for intimacy; he notices her long fingers and how delicately she eats even their slapdash cookery; they try to make the hut waterproof while the rain that was getting in wets them to the skin: ‘They stood there smiling at each other, being rained on.’ (192)
All this is delicately done. This exchange, which comes as they talk of what things may be like when they get out of the forest, gives us the distance she has come since her wandering wounded and traumatised:
We can deny that we were lovers.”
“I don’t know about you [she says] but I would find it humiliating to make such a statement when everybody looking at us would know it was a lie.” (220)
– Which is right, elegant, and romantic.
There are undertones of unease, though even these have an affectionate side. When he tells her his name, she won’t tell him hers,2 so they have to choose a new one for her:
“I’ve been married so often, all the women’s names I can think of have been used up.”
“How about ‘Friday’?”
“As a name,” she said.
‘Thank God, it’s…’? (176)
Well, yes and no; he is thanking God for her, via a joke about a restaurant franchise which is a joke about life in the workforce (which he has never really known), but Berger leaves us to add ‘as in Robinson Crusoe’ and to savour the differences between the naïve indigene who becomes Crusoe’s servant, and the modern woman (“I’m with a brokerage, in sector analysis.” 180).
She becomes Friday from this point, and we only learn her real name near the end of the novel. Meanwhile, he won’t say the husband’s name (212) and believes she is still in love with him and is prepared to believe that maybe the shooting was an accident. (This is exactly what he claims when they meet him.) So matters are left open, for all that they are happy together. The now secure and waterproof hut in which they sleep together – but don’t yet have sex – can symbolise this. (You can be lovers but not – yet – have sex together; the novel’s range extends from Crews plastering himself with mud to keep the insects off, to this romantic refinement.)
Matters are resolved by their meeting with Michael. Crews need not have worried. It doesn’t really matter whether or not Michael’s pleas and excuses (it was an accident, he has been searching desperately for her) are plausible; he is clearly a despicable human being, unaware that every sneer and boast makes him look worse. His behaviour is a little cameo of how social life can bring out meanness and foolishness in people. Eventually as he begins arrogantly to beat them at karate (he runs a health studio, and has taught her karate), Crews wacks him over the head with a length of wood, much more practical, and Ellen and Crews take the canoe (and after all she paid the hire for it: another sign of the return of the social) and head up river towards civilization. The story ends at this point, as most castaway stories do, but it looks as if Crews and Ellen will get on well in the future.
NY: William Morrow and Company, 1994.
“But if you don’t mind, I’d rather not hear my name. He kept yelling it while he was trying to kill me. He made me hate the sound of it, at least for now.” (176)