William Corker, ever-so-proper, and presumably celibate, has spent his life caring for his mother and his domineering sister, and now, at age 64, he has made the break, found his own apartment, and is living, joyfully, on his own, above the employment office where he works. The inner thoughts, memories, and poignant regrets of Corker as he approaches old age, contrast delightfully with the decidedly uncelibate, hormone-induced thoughts of his employee, 17-year-old Alec. Berger illuminates every possible intergenerational contrast and conflict here, evoking great humor and equally great sympathy for Corker and Alec, both of whom the reader recognizes as naïve.
Within this delightful and amusing story, however, Berger deals with serious universal themes related to one's life goals and responsibilities, how one wants to be remembered, and how personal freedom is defined. After caring for others for sixty-four years, Berger's only desire is "I do not want to die as I am, when I die I want to be different, I want to be less ignorant of the consequences of not being good."
Corker takes an irreversible step into his independent life during a tipsy travelogue of Vienna. It is here that Berger uses language most brilliantly to reveal the many ironies of Corker's life. What Corker actually says, what he knows, and what he would like to say to and about the other characters in the audience, all of whom have affected his life, are combined in this one stunning scene. We can observe him taking chances for the first time and experiencing "the general triumph of having spoken out and been listened to."
Simultaneously, however, the reader is privy to ironic events that are taking place outside the lecture hall, events over which Corker has no control and which will force him to continue living his new, "free" life, whether or not he wants to. The epilogue which shows us Corker two years later, reveals Berger's consummate irony: Corker is still speaking out and still living free, though not in the way that either he or we would have predicted. A fine study of a man at the end of his life, the novel showcases Berger's masterful use of irony and brilliant manipulation of language, making this a novel that language lovers will not want to miss. Mary Whipple