Thursday, February 28, 2013

Edward Berner Is Alive Again!

Edward Berner Is Alive Again!, by Herbert Kastle
No month stated, 1975  Prentice-Hall

In 1964 Herbert Kastle published the paperback-only novel The Reassembled Man. In 1975 he published this hardcover-only revision. It’s almost a complete rewrite, and I’m not sure why Kastle didn’t just publish it as its own novel. But then, only the first hundred pages are new – after which the novel is basically just a complete reprint of The Reassembled Man. At any rate Edward Berner Is Alive Again! is maybe the most obscure of Kastle’s books, garnering only this hardcover edition in the US. (In the UK it was published both in hardcover and paperback under the title The Three Lives Of Edward Berner.)

The previous incarnation of this story started at the beginning, with Ed Berner leaving his house for a drive and then finding himself, days later, standing before some human-sized beetles from outer space. Space beetles calling themselves The Druggish who offered to make all of Ed’s dreams come true. Edward Berner Is Alive Again! dispenses with this and throws you right in, so that, like it’s protagonist, you’re not really sure what’s going on for a hundred pages or so.

This time though Ed has been given the chance to relive his childhood – the novel opens with Ed finding himself in his 15 year-old body, sitting in a class room in Brooklyn in 1938. He retains his memories, memories which span decades, of his wife and his kids and all that’s happened in his life, but he can’t understand how he knows such things, or how he came to be here. Every time he tries to ponder the issue, a sort of “calming hand” brushes his mind and the troublesome thoughts go away.

Realizing he’s been given a second chance, Ed (referred to as “Eddie” throughout these opening 100+ pages) vows to make life better for his family. He lives in a crumbling apartment building with his parents; his dad barely makes a living collecting payments for his office, and his mother is a housewife. Neither of them know how to cope with Ed’s sudden personality change; whereas just a few days previously (for them) Ed was your typical sullen teenaged punk, he’s now an overly-caring individual who asks them how they’re doing, kisses his mother on the cheek, and tells them he plans to work through the summer.

Kastle is a master at narrative and character, and he shines throughout this opening half of the novel, bringing to life the 1930s New York City which Kastle himself grew up in. His only failing is, again, Ed Berner himself. I said in my review of The Reassembled Man that the novel would’ve been stronger if Kastle had shown us more of Ed’s life before he became a Druggish-powered Superman, but even here, where the first hundred pages focus on Ed before he gains his superpowers, he still comes off as being obsessed solely with money and sex.

Never once does Ed sit back and relax and rejoice in the fact that he now has an opportunity to be a kid again, to not have to worry about going to work or paying the bills or taking care of the kids. Instead he bolts into action, realizing that with his decades-spanning knowledge he could become a titan in the business world of the 1930s. The only problem is, he has no money to start off his big dreams.

Here the novel sort of resembles Ken Grimwood’s later (and superior) novel Replay, with Ed winning money on bets – betting on sports outcomes with his future knowledge. Soon Ed has gotten thousands of dollars this way, a veritable fortune in late ‘30s New York, but it rings false because Ed bets on all kinds of sports stuff…horse races, track and field stuff, boxing matches, etc, winning against impossible odds each time because he knows who’s going to win. But it’s just goofy to believe the guy could retain that much trivial information over so many decades…ie, that the 1975 Edward Berner could remember who won the long-jump in a Brooklyn match in 1938.

Another thing consistent about Ed’s characterization in the two novels is that he’s too stubborn and doesn’t pause to consider his rashness. It’s obvious he’s heading for misery with his rampant betting, pissing off the local toughs, but Ed pushes on heedless, using an 18 year-old college student to do the betting for him. Ed couldn’t care less, though, because he’s also busy chasing his other main interest – sex.

In this ’38 sequence Ed does not have the “equipment” and hypnotic powers he’s graced with later in the book and in The Reassembled Man, but he still does nicely for himself, managing to talk the attractive lady next door into sleeping with him. Quite a feat for a 15 year-old…and, due to his future knowledge of how to please a lady (something Kastle states the average ‘30s guy was oblivious of), the lady can’t get enough.

Ed also chases after his lifelong love, a girl his age named Sheila who is currently dating an older boy. Throughout this section Kastle does a great job of having Ed do all those things he wishes he’d done…like using his future-learned judo skills to beat up the school bully and anyone else who gets in his way. In this fashion he’s able to win the heart of Sheila, taking her out and spending exorbitant amounts on her.

Kastle as you know is a dark comedy master, and always has something up his sleeve…like when Ed finally achieves his lifelong dream and gets intimate with Sheila; he suddenly feels like “an old man” feeling up a teenaged girl, and basically goes nuts on her. Kastle’s also smart enough to make clear that you can’t go home again, with Ed discovering to his horror that the reality is nothing like the fantasy.

Another of Kastle’s strengths is weaving a bunch of webs and then pulling them together for a dark and unexpected ending, and he does so here, having Ed’s life spiral out of control, all the bad things he tried to prevent happening regardless, and indeed happening earlier than they did in his previous life. And just as it looks to be the end for Ed himself, he blacks out and comes to in a metal room surrounded by human-sized beetles from outer space.

Yes, it turns out that this entire opening section was nothing more than a dream, one made possible by Druggish technology. Ed, once again in his 52 year-old body, is irate – he remembers everything now, and he’d thought he would really live his life over, not just dream it, so he accuses the Druggish of screwing him over. But the Druggish make it clear that there’s no way they could reverse time for the entire planet, and in fact they argue that they upheld their end of the deal. Turns out though that this was just a trial run of sorts, and they still want Ed’s assistance: they want him to become a recorder of human life, and in exchange they will grant Ed’s wishes.

From here on the novel basically reprints The Reassembled Man, with only the most minor of changes and deletions. The dichotomy is pretty obvious because Ed never once reflects back on the 1938 section and indeed all of it comes off as superfluous to the rest of the book. But then, the Druggish have erased Ed’s memory of them, so there’s no way he could remember that trip back to his childhood. So, though it makes sense narrative-wise, it still comes off as troubling that we’ve read over a hundred pages that have ultimately no bearing on the rest of the book – which itself is just a reprint of an earlier novel.

Kastle does add one new page to this reprinted section, at the very end. Instead of ending on the “happily ever after” note of The Reassembled Man, he expands it to show that Ed, even though all of his dreams have been realized, will still always be plagued by doubt and “what could have been” fantasies; surely a little bit of commentary from our author.

So then, Edward Berner Is Alive Again! might be the superior of the two novels, if just for the opening sequence in 1938, which really is enjoyable, and doesn’t fall into the “new woman to sleep with” predictability of The Reassembled Man. And throughout Kastle’s writing is superb, bringing to life even the most minor characters, gripping the emotions and making the reader think. The guy was a hell of an author, and it’s a shame he’s so unknown today.


Tom Johnson said...

I don't know, Joe. Something tells me I want to read it, but then I'm not sure. I was young when I read the first story, and really liked it, but older now I'm not so sure I would find the same pleasure in this sequel. Just a different mindset, I guess from young thoughts to an old guy (sigh).

Joe Kenney said...

Tom, thanks for the comment. I think "Edward Berner" would be an interesting read for you. It's also told from a more mature/adult mindset than the earlier "Reassembled Man," which makes for a more satisfying read. But then everything I've yet read by Kastle has been a very satisfying read.

Unknown said...

The best book I’ve ever read.