|Kurt Vonnegut has been one of my personal heroes since|
I first started reading novels when I was 7 years old.
My first experience of intense unconditional love for another that enraptured the soul was with a book. It was Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. Ever since I read that tale of beautiful and pathetic apocalypse, his vision and style stayed close to my heart. I haven’t read everything Vonnegut ever wrote, but in some form, I have loved everything he has written as I’ve read it. I don’t think it’s good to be obsessively completist about the art we love, especially when the artist has died and won’t produce any more work. You forget too easily the experience of discovering what you love again if you’ve already completed everything. Each book is singular, and while they have in common the Vonnegut voice, the meaning of the voice is different with every book.
A while ago, a copy of Vonnegut’s Jailbird came into my possession. It’s a late-period Vonnegut, written and published long after he became ridiculously famous, so famous that no human could live up to the ideal image so many fans had dreamed. Jailbird, like a lot of his late-period work, didn’t have the best reputation. But one of the reasons why Jailbird lies fairly low on the rankings in Vonnegut fandom is because it runs against the established continuity about the nature of Kilgore Trout. I remember that when I was younger, this is a reason I never sought out Jailbird. Then I grew up physically and mentally. Some people never grow up mentally.
So, having not read a fresh-to-me Kurt Vonnegut novel in years, what did I discover?
I don’t think I’ve ever read a book as pessimistic as Jailbird. I’m including books that I’ve read about the popularity of active involvement in movements of violent ethnic cleansing. Yes, I consider Jailbird more pessimistic about human nature and potential than Shake Hands With the Devil and Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Its protagonist is Walter, a frail little man who’s had a few good things and a few more bad things happen to him because never really made his own decisions in his life. He starts the story at the end of his jail sentence, one of the shortest of any of the Watergate convictions. The reason he went to prison was because he never thought to speak up when a couple of guys stored huge bags of cash from illegal campaign contributions in his cramped office in the White House basement.
Walter has no will of his own, and no real ideals of his own. He does what he does largely through the influence of other people in his life: his father’s employer, his college girlfriend, his wife. That’s fine enough. It’s basically the central concept of my protagonist for my novel about St. John’s, A Small Man’s Town. Thinking on the literal meaning of what it would be to live through others. What depresses me about this book runs deeper than this character.
One character in the story becomes remarkably rich and powerful through good fortune in the business ventures of her husband. She has played a significant role in Walter’s life, and after her husband died, she took direct control over this conglomerate that controlled a fair chunk of the American economy. But she never lost her ideals, as she gives several key figures in the novel well-paid positions in the corporation because they were kind to her and Walter at various times. She rescues many of them from undeserved destitution, simply because they displayed genuine kindness at otherwise inconsequential moments. She even dictated in her will that her company’s holdings be left to the American People for the benefit of all.
After that will becomes important, Walter makes the only wise decision of his life. He hides it for years. He hides it because he knows that the conglomerate of his last benefactor, once left to that nebulous entity called the American People, will be possessed by the government and sold off piecemeal at auction. He hides it because he knows that once this happens, he and the other people she helped will be downsized and kicked to the curb again. And once the will is discovered, that’s exactly what happens. He’s absolutely right.
SPOILER ALERT ENDS
Here’s Vonnegut’s message to humanity with Jailbird: All the ideals that we hold dear and that make us beautiful and deserving of true dignity? They aren’t worth shit. As soon as you take a risk based on your ideals, you’ll be betrayed, beaten, kicked, and curbstomped. The only people who can succeed in life are the people who can use violence, whether of the gun or the legislature, to take what they want and crush the people who want a fair share. That’s the way the world is, and no matter how hard we might want to, we’ll never change it.
God damn you, Kurt Vonnegut.