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Jan/Feb 2006 Book Reviews

So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut Still Travels Through Time

A Man Without a Country
Kurt Vonnegut
Seven Stories Press (2005)
ISBN 1 58322 713 X

Review by Robert Gray


And Tralfamadorians don't see human beings as two-legged creatures, either. They see them as great millipedes--"with babies' legs at one end and old people's legs at the other," says Billy Pilgrim.
                   --Slaughterhouse-Five

Buy now from Amazon! When I think about author and exemplary homo sapien Kurt Vonnegut, I see him as the Tralfamadorians would--a time-lapsed human millipede. Naturally, due to my limited Earthling imagination, I picture him with middle-aged author's legs at one end (in 1970, when I first read him) and older man's legs now. Somewhere near the center of this Vonnegutian millipede, I imagine a section that represents 1986, the moment when the movie Back to School was released.

Back to School?

What does that have to do with anything?

I'm glad you asked.

If you are a rational and intelligent person, you probably can't imagine why I would bring up a film that satirized academia in slapstick fashion, allowing the irrepressible (an adjective not nearly adequate here) Rodney Dangerfield to reinvent his Caddyshack role as Thornton Melon, a boorish but lovable rich guy out to conquer the ivy-covered, stuffed shirt set. Well, let me introduce my utterly non-scientific theory about Kurt Vonnegut's evolving millipede and his current success with A Man Without a Country. You may decide that this sounds more like the crackpot work of a professor at the film's fictional university (run by a sycophantic Dean (Ned Beatty) whose last name is, yes, Martin), but I'll take that chance.

Picture this:

The scene: Thornton Melon's posh dorm room, which is in fact an entire floor of the building that he's recently renovated. Melon's son, Jason, also a student at the college, scolds his father for less than enthusiastic academic performance:

Jason: "You've got a major paper coming up on Kurt Vonnegut. You haven't even read any of the books."

Thornton: "I tried. I didn't understand a word of it."

Jason: "How are you gonna write the paper then?"

We hear a knock at the door. Jason opens it, and standing there is a rumpled looking man with a thick mustache.

Man: "Hi, I'm Kurt Vonnegut. I'm looking for Thornton Melon."

He doesn't just look like Kurt Vonnegut; he is Kurt Vonnegut. The joke is a double-layered wonder. Not only is this a college where the English professor assigns a paper on the works of Kurt Vonnegut (a conceit that still had punch line value in 1986), but it's a college where a guy like Melon could actually hire Vonnegut to write the paper.

Soon, however, the ruse is discovered and Melon gets an F. In a later scene, he's on the phone with the author: "And another thing, Vonnegut. I'm gonna stop payment on the check... What's that? Fuck me? Hey Kurt, do you read lips? Fuck you! Next time, I'll call Robert Ludlum."

And here's another joke: As a bookseller, I see a lot of school reading lists. During the past decade, one of the books that has consistently shown up on those lists is Slaughterhouse-Five. It's there time after time, just like To Kill a Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men or Animal Farm.

In the early 1970s, I read for pleasure what I'd call the usual suspects--Brautigan, Kerouac, Heinlein, and, of course, Vonnegut. I read them outside of school. I read them for fun and in spite of teachers' protestations that, "You shouldn't be reading that junk." Now some of "that junk" is required reading and we live in a world where such reading is considered duty rather than pleasure by the students with whom I speak.

So, who does read Kurt Vonnegut? If you had asked me that question a couple of years ago, I would have answered, "Kids." I hadn't read Vonnegut for three and a half decades, but I knew that kids in the 1970s and 1980s, who thought those novels were illicit pleasure, had read him; and I knew that kids in the 1990s and beyond, who'd had Vonnegut's authority certified by their school's required reading lists, still read him. But they were still just kids, right?

If you asked me that question now, however, I would have to amend the answer and say, "everybody." Or maybe I would say, "kids of all ages."

Once upon a time (the summer of 2005, to be precise), a slender book with a provocative title--A Man Without a Country--gained what the publishing industry likes to call "traction." It was written by an American author who had, long ago, penned the equally provocative line: "Practically nobody on Earth is an American."

Despite its small-press origins, the book has sold extremely well, nibbling best-seller lists nationwide. People have bought the book and read it. They've told me so. They have also told me that it was the first book by Vonnegut that they'd read in years. Many have bought more copies for their friends and, in some cases, their foes.

I'm sure there were folks at Seven Stories Press who had faith in the success of this book, but I doubt that even their definition of success for A Man Without a Country involved a lengthy visit to the best-seller lists.

Is it Vonnegut's best book? I don't think so, but it is an important book for other reasons and perhaps that makes it one of his best anyway. It is a thoughtful book, a cranky book, a wise book, a funny book, a poignant book, and an at once hopeful and fatalistic book. It is, in other words, a book of and for its time, and that is why it has perhaps regained for the author the audience that had put him away long ago like the biblical "childish things."

A Man Without a Country is a book that mourns for humanity, for what it could have been and never tried hard enough to be: "Evolution can go to hell as far as I'm concerned. What a mistake we are. We have mortally wounded this sweet life-supporting planet--the only one in the whole Milky Way--with a century of transportation whoopee."

Later, he writes: "Like my distinct betters, Einstein and Twain, I now give up on people, too."

And yet he leaves us this text, which also contains this thought, in response to a woman asking him for his advice about bringing a child into this terrifying world: "But I replied that what made being alive almost worthwhile for me, besides music, was all the saints I met, who could be anywhere. By saints I meant people who behaved decently in a strikingly indecent society."

In short chapters, Vonnegut considers his country and his world through disparate yet connected lenses--of war, writing, sex, technology, aging, politics, greed, Humanism, and so much more. He writes in a style that seems simple yet hard-won, the result not of revisions but a life lived. Aging is the best revision. The book is hand-packed, like old-fashioned ice cream, a thoroughly human construction, and yet its author is ever attentive to the contemporary.

A self-confessed Luddite, Vonnegut's ultimate lens seems--and perhaps he would hate this moniker--to be seeing the world through the eyes of a mischievous tribal elder: "How beautiful it is to get up in the morning and go out and do something. We are here on Earth to fart around. Don't let anybody tell you any different."

Maybe that's why people are listening to the elder this time, or at least reading him. Maybe that's why his earlier readers have come back to him. The man makes sense in an increasingly senseless world. He speaks to us in our time and outside our time because he long ago established the illusory nature of time, millipede that he is. "Yes, this planet is a terrible mess," he writes. "But it has always been a mess. There have never been any 'Good Old Days,' there have just been days. And as I say to my grandchildren, 'Don't look at me. I just got here.'"

More than 35 years ago, Billy Pilgrim was told the following by the Tralfamadorians: "There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time."

Earlier in Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy admits his own problems with time management: "Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren't necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next."

In A Man Without a Country, Kurt Vonnegut recalls that he set his first novel, Player Piano, in Schenectady, New York, and that when he wrote about the General Electric Company, he was classified as a science fiction writer.

Maybe we've always been wrong about Mr. Vonnegut. Maybe he's been writing nonfiction all along, and we only figured that out with his most recent creation.

 

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