As the story opens, the narrator of "Any Reasonable Offer" - a real estate agent - is on vacation in Newport, Rhode Island, "in spite of being broke" (41). He relates how he only a few days before realized how terribly real estate agents suffer at the hands of their clients. With that preamble, he tells the story of the past few weeks.
Two weeks earlier, Dennis Delahanty had asked the narrator to sell his house for twenty thousand dollars. The narrator sold the house to the first customer to show interest, and Delahanty refused to pay the commission because it took so little work.
Another client, Mrs. Hellbrunner, called the narrator immediately after he received the news from Delahanty. Mrs. Hellbrunner was angry, asking how he sold Delahanty's house so quickly while her house, for which she was asking one hundred thousand dollars, remained on the market.
A moment later, a couple - introducing themselves as Colonel Bradley Peckham and Pam Peckham - arrived asking after Mr. Hurty's house. He inquired whether its asking price of eighty-five thousand dollars was in their price range, and they were offended by the question. Encouraged, he drove them to the Hurty mansion, where they asked ridiculous questions of Mr. Hurty, like whether there was a labyrinth on the property, all the while ignoring the narrator. At one point, Pam Bradley felt faint, so the colonel asked Mr. Hurty for a shot of brandy, which he provided. The Peckhams then requested permission to wander about the mansion and property at their leisure, as if it already belonged to them, in order to "get the feel of the place" (47).
The Peckhams stayed on the property until 8:00 pm, lounging by the pool and taking advantage of the waitstaff. They then asked the narrator to drop them off at the best restaurant at town, but were cagey about answering his questions about their interest in the property or where they were staying.
Three days later, Mr. Hurty angrily called the narrator with news that the Peckhams had been staying at his home the entire time, eating his food and drinking his liquor. The narrator advised him to claim he had another offer. Soon enough, Mr. Hurty called back, informing the narrator that the lie had caused the Peckhams to leave. Mr. Hurty then insisted he was going to find a new agent.
The narrator dedicated his attention to selling Mrs. Hellbruner's mansion instead. The Peckhams arrived at his office again, interested, and he drove them to the Hellbruner estate. Once again, Pam Peckham fainted, and her husband demanded brandy to revive her. A few days later, Mrs. Hellbruner reported that the Peckhams had been arriving at her home each day at noon, seeming more and more interested. Four days later, she invited the narrator to arrive after dinner with an offer form. But when he arrived, the Peckhams had just informed Mrs. Hellbruner that the State Department was sending Colonel Peckham to Bangkok. They were leaving in the morning.
The next morning, a very upset Mrs. Hellbruner called the narrator's office, worried the Peckhams had been turned off by the price and instructing him to lower it to thirty thousand dollars. She just wanted to get rid of it.
Hoping to attract the Peckhams with the new price, the narrator sent a telegram to the National Steel Foundry in Philadelphia, where Colonel Peckham claimed to work, but received no reply. So he called by telephone, and was redirected to the drafting department. Before Peckham answered the phone, the narrator overheard him detailing his recent trip to his coworkers. One of them asked how he managed to take such fancy vacations on his meager salary.
The narrator realized that he had been conned. Further, since Delahanty had not yet paid his commission, he was broke. However, he got an idea from the Peckhams, and is now in Newport, Rhode Island, staying at the Van Tuyl estate under a fake identity, confounding the poor real estate agent just as he himself was confounded by the Peckhams.
"Any Reasonable Offer" uses the device of an unreliable narrator. Early on, we see that the narrator will lie to make a sale, when he advises Mr. Hurty to tell the Peckhams that there is another offer for his home. Even more poignantly, we learn at the end that the narrator has taken a page out of the Peckhams' playbook and is conning another real estate agent himself. It's a great storytelling device, since it makes us rewind the story once we finish to realize the narrator is unreliable the entire time. Of course, Vonnegut foreshadows this reveal throughout. For instance, the narrator declares in the very first sentence that he is on vacation in the very expensive, elite town of Newport, "in spite of being broke," with no further explanation (41).
This story is a commentary on class prejudices, as exemplified by the narrator and the clients whom the Peckhams are able to dupe. Because of their haughty appearance and the scorn with which they treat the narrator (whom they seemingly consider below themselves), the Peckhams are able to get away with their scam. The homeowners are ironically impressed by their haughtiness. The narrator also forgives them their vague answers to his deliberate questions: when he asks them what specifically they dislike about Mr. Hurty's mansion, Pam answers, "If you can't see it, no one could possibly point it out to you" (48). Vonnegut's point is that we often allow and expect certain behaviors of the upper-class, behaviors that we otherwise would see as abhorrent.
The narrator and his clients, Mr. Hurty and Mrs. Hellbruner, are undone by their own greed. Despite being treated poorly by the Peckhams throughout their interactions, the narrator is willing to sacrifice his dignity for the sake of a promised commission. Likewise, his clients overlook the oddness of the Peckhams' requests in the hope of selling their homes for high prices. Mrs. Hellbruner demonstrates her class prejudice when she complains that the narrator has not sold her house as quickly as he was able to sell Delahanty's mansion, which she haughtily refers to as an "awful little cracker-box" (42). Ultimately, the Peckhams are successful because they assume their victims will be duped by their own greed and prejudice.
The Peckhams exemplify the theme of lack of authenticity. They are complete phonies, but because they treat the other characters with the disdain common to an elite upper class, they are believable. Peckham passes himself off as a colonel who was called in to "straighten things out" at the National Steel Foundry, when in reality, he works for a meager salary as a drafter there (44). But if the Peckhams had come across as an ordinary, middle-class couple, neither the narrator nor his clients would have stood for their behavior, or likely have treated well at all.
Vonnegut uses sarcasm to achieve humor throughout "Any Reasonable Offer," especially through the narrator. For example, when Mrs. Peckham tells Mr. Hurty that she had been praying his home would have a greenhouse, the narrator says to himself, "Never underestimate the power of prayer" (45). When it is revealed to the Peckham's apparent chagrin that the Hurty property lacks a labyrinth, Colonel Peckham says it is not a problem, "making the best of it," as if it is truly a disappointing situation (45). As usual, Vonnegut uses a pointed humor not only for laughs, but moreover to illustrate the absurdity of human behaviors.