Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut; drawing by David Levine

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 to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, ‘Please—a little less love, and a little more decency.”‘ (Sounds like someone trying to patch things up at the Willy Loman Marriage Clinic.) In Slapstick, Vonnegut seemed complacent with chaos, so pleased with the whimsical turns of his own mind that he coasted from calamity to calamity, turning the end of the world into a lazy, stoned sermonette.

For years, Vonnegut’s every grunt and casual utterance was set down as owlish wisdom. In The Vonnegut Statement (1973), a collection of interviews and essays edited by Jerome Klinkowitz and John Somer, there is a conversation between Vonnegut and the critic Robert Scholes. Neither scales the cliffs of eloquence.

Scholes: A lot of these new English playwrights are interesting. Arnold Wesker is a pretty interesting playwright, too….

Vonnegut: Yes. Yes. When we were in London we got an introduction to the cultural attaché at the American embassy, who gave a party and invited C.P. Snow and his wife and Wesker.

Scholes: Wow!

Vonnegut: And I was the American cultural counter-balance there, you see.

Scholes: Ha, ha, ha….

Vonnegut: At the time I think I’d published one book, but Sir Charles was very nice. And Wesker…came late and wore a sort of suede jerkin. He wore, you know, what the seven dwarfs in Snow White wore.

Scholes: I’ll be darned.

Vonnegut: Yeah.

Yeah…uh-huh…yeah…, Vonnegut keeps nodding, and the author of The Fabulators is (like, wow) entranced. Elsewhere in the book, Vonnegut is compared to Melville, Faulkner, Moses, and Job. No, Vonnegut hasn’t been well served by the space cadets eager to return his weary salute. Even John Updike’s praise of Slapstick sent sensitive stomachs scurrying to the medicine chest for bicarbonate. “This saucy spaghetti of ideas…,” Updike assured New Yorker readers, “seems in the consumption as clear as consommé and goes down like ice cream.” Not in my apartment, it didn’t.


Like Mother Night and Slaughter-house-Five, Jailbird is grounded in history and concerns itself with the fate of history’s pawns. Except for his “speckled old hands,” Walter F. Starbuck seems to have no fleshly existence; he’s little more than a pair of tired, mournful eyes. In his sixty-seven years Starbuck has witnessed witch hunts, the wreckage of war in Germany, the collapse of the Nixon presidency, and the gobbling-up of Vogue, Playboy, The New York Times, McDonald’s, and “Peanuts” by a sinister super-conglomerate, RAMJAC; he also funks at length about the deaths of Sacco and Vanzetti, Caryl Chessman, and his wife Ruth, “the Ophelia of the death camps.” So many famous names make appearances in this Cavalcade of Shame that Vonnegut provides an index, listing his cast from A (Adam, Agnew) to Z (Zeus, Zola). The years themselves are characters, Starbuck informs us. “Nineteen-hundred and Thirteen gave me the gift of life. Nineteen-hundred and Twenty-nine wrecked the American economy. Nineteen-hundred and Thirty-one sent me to Harvard.” Pictorially, Jailbird is a huge, crowded Steinberg drawing, with the years marching across the horizon like a victorious army as Starbuck sits on a park bench, beneath a thunderhead of exploding clouds.

Vonnegut’s manner here is wry, intimate—insinuating. Compared to the clunky crosscutting in Slapstick, the narrative here is smooth and tricky, full of flashbacks, flashforwards, serendipitous coincidences, and mystery-solving surprises, all kept under control. Vonnegut even writes about Richard Nixon without splattering the wall (as Robert Coover did in The Public Burning). Perhaps the most moving chapters trace Starbuck’s misadventures in Times Square as he smacks up against fading memories and fist-fucking, and dreams about his “damp, innocent pink lungs” shriveling into black raisins. Shuffling across 42nd Street, Starbuck is accosted by a shopping-bag lady who beneath her layers of rags and stench turns out to be Mary Kathleen O’Looney, one of the few loves in his life. As Starbuck helps O’Looney lug her foul load to a subterranean stash-hole beneath Grand Central Station, he attracts the attention of passers-by: “Nobody had ever seen a shopping-bag lady with an assistant before.” O’Looney, we soon learn, is actually the mysterioso majority stockholder of the RAMJAC conglomerate. So: after Starbuck’s reunion with his long-lost sweetheart, everyone who showed him kindness in civilian life is rewarded with a RAMJAC vice-presidentship—a showering of riches reminiscent of a Depression-haunted Frank Capra comedy.

Perhaps Vonnegut feels in his aching bones that a new Nineteen-hundred and Twenty-nine will soon wreck the economy, or perhaps the book simply slips from his grasp; but whatever the explanation, the final chapters are a shambles. After Starbuck meets up with a part-time nurse named Sarah (another lost love), they share a series of wincingly bad jokes whenever one of her patients is wheeled off to the morgue. (Sample bit. Customer: “Waiter, there’s a needle in my soup.” Waiter: “Sorry, madam, that’s a typographical error—that should have been a noodle.”) Later, Starbuck is believed to be the majority stockholder of RAMJAC—O’Looney in drag—and becomes the object of obsequious wooing. Arpad Leen, president of RAMJAC, lifts Starbuck’s hand and bestows a gallant kiss. “He kissed my hand again, the same hand Mary Kathleen’s dirty little claw had grasped that morning.” I’m no God damn woman! Starbuck finally shouts with indignant disgust.

None of this tomfoolery works—the comedy is slapped on with a trowel, the pathos scored to the throbbing of a lonely violin. And when Starbuck attacks all hope of wisdom in this world by studiously retelling the story of Sacco and Vanzetti, the novel reminds the reader not of a Steinberg collage but a peeling-off-the-wall Ben Shahn poster. With this difference: the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in these pages has a storybook inevitability. Vonnegut never works himself up into undignified anger; he calmly totes up death and injustice as items in his indictment of America the Cruel. Throughout his collection of articles, Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons, Vonnegut laments the mad bloodiness of American history: the massacre of Indians and My Lai peasants, the fire-bombing of Dresden. But as a self-proclaimed pessimist, Vonnegut has little hope that Americans can be awakened from their uncaring stupor—or that, once awakened, they can bring the killing to a close. After witnessing the death spasms of the Republic of Biafra, Vonnegut wrote in McCalls:

My neighbors ask me what they can do for Biafra at this late date, or what they should have done for Biafra at some earlier date.

I tell them this: “Nothing. It was and is an internal matter, which you can merely deplore.”

Like Sacco and Vanzetti, the Biafran people are holy innocents sacrificed on the altar of History, and all that Vonnegut asks is that we not avert our gaze.


However, he has a few helpful hints to offer regarding the rehabilitation of our dilapidated planet. In a 1970 graduation address at Bennington College, Vonnegut cuddled up to his young audience by stroking their prejudices: “[We] would be a lot safer if the Government would take its money out of science and put it into astrology and the reading of palms.” It’s all a superstitious fraud, he admitted, but superstition is more on the side of life than “Military science.” And after celebrating the mysteries of cusps and crooked heart-lines, America could then start tending to the needs of the enfeebled multitudes. “When it is really time for you to save the world…, I suggest that you work for a socialist form of government. Free Enterprise is much too hard on the old and the sick and the shy [the shy?] and the poor and the stupid, and on people nobody likes [like Howard Cosell and Tom Snyder].” Even when Starbuck broods about lives crushed by Capitalism—strikers killed in the Cuyahoga Massacre, women hideously wasted by radium poisoning at the Wyatt Clock Company—he can’t rouse himself into righteous fury. “We are chimpanzees,” he muses at one point. “We are orangutans.” What else can you expect from a doomed monkey race….

So at the end of Jailbird RAMJAC crumbles, only to be replaced on the world scene by another ominous cluster of initials, BIBEC. Starbuck, facing another prison term, looks forward to the day when he can trudge through Manhattan as a shopping-bag man and lead a life of pure futility. “The human condition in an exploding universe would not have been altered one iota if, rather than live as I have, I had done nothing but carry a rubber ice-cream cone from closet to closet for sixty years.” In Germany after the fall of the Third Reich, Starbuck met and nursed to health and married a concentration camp survivor named Ruth, married her and brought her to America. Isn’t that worth more than an “iota” in the moral measure of one’s life?

Reading through Vonnegut’s books, I was struck by all the Sunday school pieties—the admonition to “be fruitful and multiply” at the fag end of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, the oath from Job that prefaces Breakfast of Champions. Vonnegut’s prologue to Jailbird contains a gloss on the Sermon on the Mount, and in the epilogue the Sermon is again invoked. In Vonnegut’s vision of the future, the meek shall inherit the earth because the brutal and haughty will bash themselves into oblivion. He once told an interviewer from Playboy, “I admire Christianity more than anything—Christianity as symbolized by gentle people sharing a common bowl.” By becoming a shopping-bag man, Starbuck can bear Christian witness to the ideal of honorable poverty; he can body forth beggarly beatitude.

Beggars and tycoons, winners and losers, hawks and doves, officers and civilians—part of Vonnegut’s appeal is that he so neatly divides the world into warring camps, with Vonnegut so clearly on the side of the doves and dreamy lambs. As a mod apostle, he’s surely preferable to born-again Bob Dylan, who between snorts on his harmonica scolds the world for its heathen ignorance. Unlike Dylan, Vonnegut seems generous-souled, capable of laughter and self-deprecation. And as a cult writer, he is more congenial than (say) Jerzy Kosinski, whose novels burn with radiation, buggery, chic sadism, and bad table manners; or Rudolph Wurlitzer, whose books have all the beauty and vigor of a crippled lizard slithering along the ridge of an arroyo. Yet Vonnegut’s chumminess also limits him as an artist—he’s too comfortable with his audience, with the sound of his sour little conceits stirring up ripples of appreciative mirth. Like J.D. Salinger, he strikes an easy conspiratorial tone that engages the reader’s sympathy in his campaign against phoniness, against science and ideas, against the whole sick-souled grown-up world.

With Jailbird, Vonnegut seems to be backing off from playing Shepherd of the Wayward Flock, and it’s about time. After the counter-cultural cymbalclashing of Slapstick and Breakfast of Champions, Jailbird is pleasingly subdued, a novel of repose, gentle irony, and gray light. It’s unsatisfying because Vonnegut can’t resist pillowing his head yet again upon fluffed-up despair, but still! it has a bleak, frazzled charm.

This Issue

November 22, 1979