One by one, God snuffs the stars. The light fades from the firmament (reports Kurt Vonnegut in his novels), life on earth becomes a sad carnival, with geeks, clowns, and chimpanzees slogging forlornly through the scattered hay. Citizens are robots, machines; and in Slapstick the Chief Executive is a sedated booby who drapes himself in a shabby purple toga. Even those who crack and go on crazy rampages—like the Pontiac dealer in Breakfast of Champions—are blameless losers, victims of bad upbringings and “bad chemicals.” Yet in its disarray, the world offers eerie enchantments. Gravity slackens, allowing survivors to sail manhole covers through the air like coins; the Chinese miniaturize themselves and travel to Mars; phosphorescent scarves float through the minds of frightened homosexuals. “It is hard to adapt to chaos, but it can be done,” Vonnegut observes in Breakfast of Champions. “I am living proof of that: It can be done.”
In mood and detail, Vonnegut’s new novel mirrors the cosmic stoicism of Slapstick and Breakfast of Champions. Sitting on a cot in Minimum Security on a spring morning in 1977 is Walter F. Starbuck, a Nixon adviser nailed during the Watergate upheaval for embezzlement, perjury, obstruction of justice. A Harvard grad, Starbuck has spent two years in the slammer with a host of Phi Beta Kappa smarties: doctors, dentists, economists, and “simply shoals of disbarred lawyers.” He’s now being released into civilian life, where Chaplinesque adventures await. Familiar chords are sounded. Instead of Slaughterhouse Five’s “So it goes” or Slapstick’s hiccuppy “Hiho,” Jailbird is punctuated with sighs and benedictions. Peace. Small world. Imagine that. Too bad. Live and learn. Life goes on. Peace. Again: peace. A joke from Slapstick about why cream is so expensive—answer: because cows hate to squat on tiny bottles—turns up again in this novel on page 201. At the climax of Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut is shaken by his father’s voice crying, “Make me young, make me young, make me young!” With a wave of the wand the wish is granted, and in the prologue to Jailbird Vonnegut describes an unfinished short story in which his father roams through Heaven as a blubbering nine-year-old—“For the love of God, Father, won’t you please grow up!” he finally yells in exasperation.
Despite all these soft echoes and sneaky winks, Vonnegut’s latest novel is a recovery. (But after Slapstick could Vonnegut go anywhere but up?) Breakfast of Champions had a few spry moments—a joke about a black school called Innocent Bystander High; drawings of trucks, bugs, and apples—but Slapstick was a thin stream of fey wisecracks, and cute names (Vera Chipmunk-5 Zappa, Dorothy Daffodil-7 Garland). Worse than the head-comics humor was the happiness-is-a-warmtherapist sentimentality. From the prologue: “Love is where you find it. I think it is foolish to go looking for it, and I think it can often be poisonous. I wish that people who are conventionally supposed…
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