All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

The club met this glorious spring day at the Woodland Country Club in a spacious room overlooking the golf course. Those participating in a raucous (hey, it was all guys this time!) discussion of Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” (Circa 1726)  were: Mark Hudson, John Hawn, Jay Carr, John Sturman, Phil Watts, Bill Briscoe, and Dave Young.

Frtiz Hadley was unable to join us, but he did send us copies of one his favorite Swiftian poems: “The Lady’s Dressing Room” (1732) which we discussed in the course of examining Swift’s obsession with bodily functions. The male character in the long poem has let himself into Celia’s dressing room and is smelling her clothes and speculating about the stains thereon.  “Oh! Celia, Celia. Celia shits.”  The misogynistic Swift was 64 and, as Dean of St. Patrick’s, a leader in his church when he composed this. We recalled that decades ago, before the advent of stronger detergents, long-lasting deodorants, and polyester clothing how much richer our olfactory glands were. Fritz should read Lady Montagu’s 1734 epistolary response to Swift in which she speculates that the poem was occasioned by Swift’s unsatisfactory visit to a prostitute and his pique following her refusal to refund his money. Lady Mary was the toast of the Kit-Kat Club. Whoever said they didn’t have any fun back in the day?

Bill launched the discussion by distributing a very challenging test of our knowledge of things Swiftian. Sensing our struggle, he quickly distributed an answer sheet. We agreed that the Travels was an early attempt at science fiction (particularly with the flying island in Chapter 3) and we tried to imagine the state of Science in the early 18th century not long after the microscope and telescope were invented. Did the manipulation of size inspire Lilliput and Brobdingnab? Swift’s satire was in its highest gear when the Lilliputan government became dysfunctional over the issue of on which end an egg should be cracked. And then there were those futile scientific experiments. Over the six year period the four chapters were written, things went from bad to worse for the good Captain. On successive voyages he was shipwrecked, abandoned, attacked by strangers, and mutinied by his own crew. He began as a cheery optimist but ended as a crazed and pompous misanthrope preferring to spend his time in the company of horses as he had come to see all human beings as loathsome Yahoos.

Was Swift a Whig or a Tory? He described himself as a Whig in politics and a Tory in religion, which doesn’t help very much. We did not get very far in trying to understand the politics of the Queen Anne era. Swift, like Shakespeare before him, had to be careful in criticizing the monarchy and the government. He invented fanciful countries to satirize his contemporaries and this caused his publishers who were no doubt fearful of the Crown to butcher his works.  Swift published under several pen names and there were many writers who tried to clone him.  It has taken a long time and a lot of scholarship to reconstruct what he actually wrote.

So how, we wondered, does this book relate to our hero, Kurt Vonnegut? In about 1971, the Book-of-the-Month Club picked an Oxford University Press edition of “Gulliver’s Travels” for its monthly selection and asked Kurt Vonnegut to write a forward. Kurt furnished the requested essay and it was promptly rejected as “poorly written” or as Kurt puts it because “I had sentimentalized Swift.” As he was never known to throw anything away, the forward was later included in KV’s anthology “Palm Sunday.” After reading it, I can see the problem as it seems to be excessively wordy. Particularly troubling was a long awkward paragraph pointing out errors Swift made in scaling Captain Gulliver to the very large and very small creatures he encountered on his journey. Here are two interesting paragraphs:

“I had a teacher in high school who assured me that a person has to be at least a little insane to harp on human disgustingness as much as Swift does. And Swift harps on it long before Gulliver has gone insane. I would tell that teacher now, if she were still alive, that his harping is so relentless that it becomes ridiculous, and that Swift is teaching us a lesson almost as important as the one about our not being lambs: that our readiness to feel disgust for ourselves and others is not, perhaps the guardian of civilization so many of us imagine it to be. Disgust, in fact, may be the chief damager of our reason, of our common sense – may make us insane.”
……….
“The justification for publishing an edition as naked of notes as this one is, of course, is that the author, like all authors, wished his book to be loved for itself alone. If the ghost of Jonathan Swift is among us, it must resent terrifically my own Yahoollike intrusion here. I apologize. Next to my being in this volume at all, my most serious offense is failing to convey how much rage and joy and irrationality must have gone into the creation of this masterpiece. In praising the sanity of “Gulliver’s Travels,” I have made it sound altogether too sane.”

Being of a charitable nature, we gave this work an 8.0 on the indestructible KV ten point scale and continued with a very pleasant country club lunch.

Upcoming books. We will next meet on April 25, 2019 at 11AM to discuss “Armageddon in Retrospect.” Janet Penwell will host the meeting at her home, 1138 E. 58th Street, and will lead the discussion. Dave and John have switched dates for May and June. Dave Young will take on “Ravelstein” on May 23, 2019 at 11AM at the Columbia Club. John Sturman will help us with “Their Eyes are Watching God” at 11AM on June 27, 2019. Location to be determined.   We are filling the September 26, 2019 open date with “Slaughterhouse Five” to celebrate banned books week and the 50th Anniversary of its publication. By this time, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library should be in its new home and we will have an early meeting at 9:30AM so we don’t get in the way of lunchtime activities there. Stay tuned for details.

Dave Young

Plot Summary excerpted from Wikipedia

Gulliver’s Travels, or Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships (which is the full title), is a prose satire[1][2] by Irish writer and clergyman Jonathan Swift, that is both a satire on human nature and the “travellers’ tales” literary subgenre. It is Swift’s best known full-length work, and a classic of English literature. He himself claimed that he wrote Gulliver’s Travels “to vex the world rather than divert it”.  The book was an immediate success. John Gay remarked “It is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery”.[3]  In 2015, Robert McCrum released his selection list of 100 best novels of all time in which Gulliver’s Travels is listed, as “a satirical masterpiece”.[4]

Part I: A Voyage to Lilliput4 May 1699[6] – 13 April 1702

Mural depicting Gulliver surrounded by citizens of Lilliput.
The travel begins with a short preamble in which Lemuel Gulliver gives a brief outline of his life and history before his voyages.
During his first voyage, Gulliver is washed ashore after a shipwreck and finds himself a prisoner of a race of tiny people, less than 6 inches (15 cm) tall, who are inhabitants of the island country of Lilliput. After giving assurances of his good behaviour, he is given a residence in Lilliput and becomes a favourite of the Lilliput Royal Court. He is also given permission by the King of Lilliput to go around the city on condition that he must not hurt their subjects.
At first, the Lilliputians are hospitable to Gulliver, but they are also wary of the threat that his size poses to them. The Lilliputians reveal themselves to be a people who put great emphasis on trivial matters. For example, which end of an egg a person cracks becomes the basis of a deep political rift within that nation. They are a people who revel in displays of authority and performances of power. Gulliver assists the Lilliputians to subdue their neighbours the Blefuscudians by stealing their fleet. However, he refuses to reduce the island nation of Blefuscu to a province of Lilliput, displeasing the King and the royal court.
Gulliver is charged with treason for, among other crimes, urinating in the capital though he was putting out a fire. He is convicted and sentenced to be blinded. With the assistance of a kind friend, “a considerable person at court”, he escapes to Blefuscu. Here, he spots and retrieves an abandoned boat and sails out to be rescued by a passing ship, which safely takes him back home.

Part II: A Voyage to Brobdingnag[edit]
20 June 1702[7] – 3 June 1706[7]

Gulliver exhibited to the Brobdingnag Farmer (painting by Richard Redgrave)
Gulliver soon sets out again. When the sailing ship Adventure is blown off course by storms and forced to sail for land in search of fresh water, Gulliver is abandoned by his companions and is left on a peninsula on the western coast of the North American continent.
The grass of that land is as tall as a tree. He is then found by a farmer who was about 72 ft (22 m) tall, judging from Gulliver estimating a man’s step being 10 yards (9 m). He brings Gulliver home and the farmer’s daughter Glumdalclitch cares for Gulliver. The giant-sized farmer treats him as a curiosity and exhibits him for money. After a while the constant shows make Gulliver sick, and the farmer sells him to the queen of the realm. Glumdalclitch (who accompanied her father while exhibiting Gulliver) is taken into the Queen of Brobdingnag’s service to take care of the tiny man. Since Gulliver is too small to use their huge chairs, beds, knives and forks, the Queen of Brobdingnag commissions a small house to be built for him so that he can be carried around in it; this is referred to as his “travelling box”.
Between small adventures such as fighting giant wasps and being carried to the roof by a monkey, he discusses the state of Europe with the King of Brobdingnag. The King is not happy with Gulliver’s accounts of Europe, especially upon learning of the use of guns and cannons. On a trip to the seaside, his traveling box is seized by a giant eagle which drops Gulliver and his box into the sea where he is picked up by some sailors who return him to England.

Part III: A Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib and Japan[edit]
See also: Floating cities and islands in fiction
5 August 1706[7] – 16 April 1710[8]

Gulliver discovers Laputa, the flying island (illustration by J. J. Grandville)
Setting out again, Gulliver’s ship is attacked by pirates and he is marooned close to a desolate rocky island near India. He is rescued by the flying island of Laputa, a kingdom devoted to the arts of music, mathematics, and astronomy but unable to use them for practical ends. Rather than use armies, Laputa has a custom of throwing rocks down at rebellious cities on the ground.
Gulliver tours Balnibarbi, the kingdom ruled from Laputa, as the guest of a low-ranking courtier and sees the ruin brought about by the blind pursuit of science without practical results, in a satire on bureaucracy and on the Royal Society and its experiments. At the Grand Academy of Lagado in Balnibarbi, great resources and manpower are employed on researching completely preposterous schemes such as extracting sunbeams from cucumbers, softening marble for use in pillows, learning how to mix paint by smell, and uncovering political conspiracies by examining the excrement of suspicious persons (see muckraking). Gulliver is then taken to Maldonada, the main port of Balnibarbi, to await a trader who can take him on to Japan.
While waiting for a passage, Gulliver takes a short side-trip to the island of Glubbdubdrib which is southwest of Balnibarbi. On Glubbdubdrib, he visits a magician’s dwelling and discusses history with the ghosts of historical figures, the most obvious restatement of the “ancients versus moderns” theme in the book. The ghosts consist of Julius Caesar, Brutus, Homer, Aristotle, René Descartes, and Pierre Gassendi.
On the island of Luggnagg, he encounters the struldbrugs, people who are immortal. They do not have the gift of eternal youth, but suffer the infirmities of old age and are considered legally dead at the age of eighty.
After reaching Japan, Gulliver asks the Emperor “to excuse my performing the ceremony imposed upon my countrymen of trampling upon the crucifix”, which the Emperor does. Gulliver returns home, determined to stay there for the rest of his days.

Part IV: A Voyage to the Land of the Houyhnhnms[edit]
7 September 1710[7] – 5 December 1715[7]

Gulliver in discussion with Houyhnhnms (1856 illustration by J.J. Grandville).
Despite his earlier intention of remaining at home, Gulliver returns to sea as the captain of a merchantman, as he is bored with his employment as a surgeon. On this voyage, he is forced to find new additions to his crew whom he believes to have turned the rest of the crew against him. His crew then commits mutiny. After keeping him contained for some time, they resolve to leave him on the first piece of land they come across, and continue as pirates. He is abandoned in a landing boat and comes upon a race of hideous, deformed and savage humanoid creatures to which he conceives a violent antipathy. Shortly afterwards, he meets the Houyhnhnms, a race of talking horses. They are the rulers while the deformed creatures that resemble human beings are called Yahoos.
Gulliver becomes a member of a horse’s household and comes to both admire and emulate the Houyhnhnms and their way of life, rejecting his fellow humans as merely Yahoos endowed with some semblance of reason which they only use to exacerbate and add to the vices Nature gave them. However, an Assembly of the Houyhnhnms rules that Gulliver, a Yahoo with some semblance of reason, is a danger to their civilization and commands him to swim back to the land that he came from. Gulliver’s “Master,” the Houyhnhnm who took him into his household, buys him time to create a canoe to make his departure easier. After another disastrous voyage, he is rescued against his will by a Portuguese ship. He is disgusted to see that Captain Pedro de Mendez, whom he considers a Yahoo, is a wise, courteous, and generous person.
He returns to his home in England, but he is unable to reconcile himself to living among “Yahoos” and becomes a recluse, remaining in his house, largely avoiding his family and his wife, and spending several hours a day speaking with the horses in his stables.
Wiki

 

 Unknown

Meeting, February 28, 2019

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

The club met in its temporary quarters at the Indiana Writer’s Center to discusss John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” knowledgeably guided by Mark Hudson. Others who joined in were: Jay Carr, Janet Hodgkin, Phill Watts, Kathleen Angelone, Janet Penwell, John Hawn, Gene Galveston, Bill Briscoe and Dave Young.

Mark gave us a good overview of Steinbeck and this novel which was a best seller when it came out in 1939. It was banned in many areas, not because of the description of some sexual acts, but because it offended California farmers who were exploiting the migrants.  Although Steinbeck considered himself an agnostic, the book has strong religious themes often portraying Jim Casy (Jesus Christ?) and Tom Joad as Christ-like. The book starts with a drought and ends with a flood. Pretty depressing overall but lightened slightly by some comic relief. When drugged-up Grampa is dying by the side of the road, Granma Joad shouts at the back-sliding preacher accompanying them “Pray, Goddammit.” This novel grew out of several newspaper columns Steinbeck wrote for a San Francisco newspaper and is considered his best work even though Steinbeck felt “East of Eden” was a better novel. He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and a Nobel Prize in 1962, both apparently based on Grapes. Like Vonnegut, he was not held in high regard by the academics who expressed criticism that his work was shallow and “too preachy.” Apparently stung by the negativity, Steinbeck never published again and died six years later in 1968 at the age of 66.

We tried to find some relationship between Vonnegut and Steinbeck. Steinbeck’s last novel, which was not well-received, “The Winter of Our Discontent” was written in 1961. That year the still-struggling Vonnegut finished his third novel,  “Mother Night.” Steinbeck was wedded to rural California and Vonnegut had become a hard-core Manhattanite. Googling establishes no connection and it seems that their paths probably did not cross. Both have been taught in high schools as they seem to be accessible to young people. Steinbeck’s shorter fiction, particularly “Of Mice and Men,” is still taught in Junior High English classes. Like many Twentieth Century authors, they both began their professional careers as newspaper reporters.

We had some fun recalling the Hudson Automobile. The 1941 Hudson Commodore at the top of this page rolled off the assembly lines a few years after the Joad’s Hudson which was chopped up and converted into a truck. It carried thirteen Joads and fellow travelers.  In the 1950’s my neighbors had a Hudson Commodore that looked like a big inverted bathtub. It was bigger than my bedroom. We tried to imagine 13 human beings and all their earthly possessions squeezing into the Joad’s  Hudson for a thousand mile trip through deserts and mountains. To emphasize the evil that lurks in the heart of men, Steinbeck arranged tor the Joads to buy a defective Hudson whose mangled transmission was hushed with sawdust. Fortunately, the Joad boys were expert backyard mechanics.

While the men had the trade skills to bring the bacon home, the women, particularly Ma Joad, were the glue that held the family together. When things were at their darkest, they got everyone together and back on the trail.    Another noteworthy trait of the Joads was their willingness to share their meager goods with others.  This is contrasted with the greed of the rich farmers and landowners.

Leo Tolstoy gave us this thought:  “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” We couldn’t help but compare the Joad’s journey to the Exodus in the Bible or the current Caravans of Central Americans making their way to the Promised Land. The Promised Land of California did not turn out so great for the Joads. This story began with a drought and ended with a flood. The field work was low-paying and sporadic and the living conditions in the fetid Hoovervilles (Hey, Herbert Hoover was gone in 1932! Give us a break, Steinbeck). The ending is muddled and hopeless. We never find out what happened to the Christ-like and double-murderer Tom Joad. On the last page, his daughter, Rose of Sharon, having lost her stillborn child to malnutrition, offers her swollen breast to a starving  man just to keep him alive.

So, the message seems to be that no matter how good -hearted you are and how hard you try you are fucked and your future is hopeless. But try you must and you have to keep going. That is the human condition.

We rated this piece of socialist realism a rousing 9.25 on the infallible KV ten point scale.
Afterwards, four of us lunched on Cajun food at Yat’s, 885 Massachusetts Avenue and continued the discussion. Our next meeting will be on Thursday, March 28, 2019 when
Bill Briscoe will lead us through Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels”. Please join us at 11AM at the clubhouse at the Woodland Country Club, 100 Woodland Lane, Carmel, IN.

Dave Young

The Grapes of Wrath
Excerpted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Grapes of Wrath is an American realist novel written by John Steinbeck and published in 1939.[2] The book won the National Book Award[3] and Pulitzer Prize[4] for fiction, and it was cited prominently when Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962.[5]

Set during the Great Depression, the novel focuses on the Joads, a poor family of tenant farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, agricultural industry changes, and bank foreclosures forcing tenant farmers out of work. Due to their nearly hopeless situation, and in part because they are trapped in the Dust Bowl, the Joads set out for California. Along with thousands of other “Okies”, they seek jobs, land, dignity, and a future. The Grapes of Wrath is frequently read in American high school and college literature classes due to its historical context and enduring legacy.[6][7] A celebrated Hollywood film version, starring Henry Fonda and directed by John Ford, was released in 1940.

The narrative begins just after Tom Joad is paroled from McAlester prison, where he had been imprisoned after being convicted of homicide. On his return to his home near Sallisaw, Oklahoma, Tom meets former preacher Jim Casy, whom he remembers from his childhood, and the two travel together. When they arrive at Tom’s childhood farm home, they find it deserted. Disconcerted and confused, Tom and Casy meet their old neighbor, Muley Graves, who tells them the family has gone to stay at Uncle John Joad’s home nearby. Graves tells them that the banks have evicted all the farmers, but he refuses to leave the area.

The next morning, Tom and Casy go to Uncle John’s. Tom finds his family loading their remaining possessions into a Hudson Motor Car Company sedan converted to a truck; with their crops destroyed by the Dust Bowl, the family has defaulted on their bank loans, and their farm has been repossessed. Consequently, the Joads see no option but to seek work in California, described in handbills as fruitful and offering high pay.
The Joads put everything they have into making the journey. Although leaving Oklahoma would violate his parole, Tom decides it is worth the risk, and invites Casy to join him and his family.

Traveling west on Route 66, the Joad family find the road crowded with other migrants. In makeshift camps, they hear many stories from others, some returning from California, and the group worries about lessening prospects. The family dwindles as well: Grandpa dies along the road, and they bury him in a field; Grandma dies close to the California state line; and both Noah (the eldest Joad son) and Connie Rivers (the husband of the pregnant Joad daughter, Rose of Sharon) leave the family. Led by Ma, the remaining members realize they can only continue, as nothing is left for them in Oklahoma.
Reaching California, they find the state oversupplied with labor; wages are low, and workers are exploited to the point of starvation. The big corporate farmers are in collusion and smaller farmers suffer from collapsing prices. Weedpatch Camp, one of the clean, utility-supplied camps operated by the Resettlement Administration, a New Deal agency, offers better conditions but does not have enough resources to care for all the needy families. Nonetheless, as a Federal facility, the camp protects the migrants from harassment by California deputies.

In response to the exploitation, Casy becomes a labor organizer and tries to recruit for a labor union. The remaining Joads work as strikebreakers in a peach orchard, where Casy is involved in a strike that eventually turns violent. When Tom Joad witnesses Casy’s fatal beating, he kills the attacker and flees as a fugitive. The Joads later leave the orchard for a cotton farm, where Tom is at risk of being arrested for the homicide.
Tom bids his mother farewell and promises to work for the oppressed. Rose of Sharon’s baby is stillborn. Ma Joad remains steadfast and forces the family through the bereavement. With rain, the Joads’ dwelling is flooded, and they move to higher ground. In the final chapter of the book, the family takes shelter from the flood in an old barn. Inside they find a young boy and his father, who is dying of starvation. Rose of Sharon takes pity on the man and offers him her breast milk to save him from starvation.

Characters:

Tom Joad: Protagonist of the story; the Joad family’s second son, named after his father. Later on, Tom takes leadership of the family even though he is young.
Ma Joad: Matriarch. Practical and warm-spirited, she tries to hold the family together. Her given name is never learned; it is suggested that her maiden name was Hazlett.
Pa Joad: Patriarch, also named Tom, age 50. Hardworking sharecropper and family man. Pa becomes a broken man upon losing his livelihood and means of supporting his family, forcing Ma to assume leadership.
Uncle John Joad: Pa Joad’s older brother (Tom describes him as “a fella about 60”, but in narrative he is described as 50). He felt guilty about the death of his young wife years before, and has been prone to binges involving alcohol and prostitutes, but is generous with his goods.
Jim Casy: A former preacher who lost his faith. He is a Christ-like figure and is based on Ed Ricketts.
Al Joad: The third youngest son, a “smart-aleck sixteen-year-older” who cares mainly for cars and girls; he looks up to Tom, but begins to find his own way.
Rose of Sharon Joad Rivers: Childish and dreamy teenage daughter (18) who develops into a mature woman. Pregnant in the beginning of the novel, she delivers a stillborn baby, perhaps due to malnutrition.
Connie Rivers: Rose of Sharon’s husband. Nineteen years old and naïve, he is overwhelmed by marriage and impending fatherhood; he abandons his wife shortly after they arrive in California.
Noah Joad: The oldest son, he is the first to leave the family, planning to live off fishing on the Colorado River. Injured at birth and described as “strange”, he may have slight learning difficulties.
Grampa Joad: Tom’s grandfather, who expresses his strong desire to stay in Oklahoma. His full name is given as William James Joad. Grampa is drugged by his family with “soothin’ syrup” to force him to leave, but he dies the first evening on the road. Casy attributes his death to a stroke but says that Grampa is “jus’ stayin’ with the lan’. He couldn’ leave it.”
Granma Joad: Grampa Joad’s religious wife; she loses her will to live after his death. She dies while the family is crossing the Mojave Desert.
Ruthie Joad: The youngest daughter, age twelve. She is shown to be reckless and childish. Quarreling with another child, she reveals Tom in hiding.
Winfield Joad: The youngest male in the family, age ten, “kid-wild and calfish”.
Jim Rawley: Manages the camp at Weedpatch, he shows the Joads surprising favor.
Muley Graves: A neighbor of the Joads’; he is invited to come along to California with them but refuses. The family leave two of their dogs with him; a third they take but it is killed by a car during their travels.
Ivy and Sairy Wilson: Migrants from Kansas, they attend the death of Grampa and share the journey as far as the California state line.
Mr. Wainwright: The father of Aggie Wainwright and husband of Mrs. Wainwright. Worries over his daughter Aggie.
Mrs. Wainwright: Mother to Aggie Wainwright and wife to Mr. Wainwright. She helps Ma deliver Rose of Sharon’s baby.
Aggie Wainwright: Sixteen-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Wainwright. Intends to marry Al.
Floyd Knowles: The man at the Hooverville who urges Tom and Casy to join labor organizations. His agitation results in Casy’s being jailed.

Religious interpretation

Many scholars note Steinbeck for his many uses of Christian imagery within The Grapes of Wrath. The largest implications lie with Tom Joad and Jim Casy, who are both interpreted as Christ-like figures at certain intervals within the novel. These two are often interpreted together, with Jim Casy representing Jesus Christ in the early days of his ministry, up until his death, which is interpreted as representing the death of Christ. From there, Tom takes over, rising in Casy’s place as the Christ figure risen from the dead.

However, the religious imagery is not limited to these two characters. Scholars have regularly inspected other characters and plot points within the novel, including Ma Joad, Rose of Sharon, Rose of Sharon’s stillborn child, and Uncle John. In an article first published in 2009, Ken Eckert even compared the migrant’s movement west as a reversed version of the slaves’ escape from Egypt in Exodus.[8] Many of these extreme interpretations are brought on by Steinbeck’s own documented beliefs, which Eckert himself refers to as “unorthodox”. ………

 

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

The club met at our temporary quarters in the Hoosier Writer’s Center to discuss Salmon Rushdie’s  1988 novel “Satanic Verses.”  Those attending were  John Sturman, Janet Penwell, John Hawn, Gene Halveston, and Bill Briscoe.  Dave is on his annual sojourn to Florida, so info for this dispatch was provided by Bill Briscoe.

No one bothered to take notes of the discussion so readers of the blog will just have to guess about the goings-on which I am sure were fabulous. I have appended a summary from Wikipedia for those who had no time to read the novel.

This complicated novel merited a 6.2 on the vaunted ten point KV scale.

The club retreated to the Shoe-Fly Public House, 122 E. 22nd Street, for  lunch.

Our next selection will be  John Steinbeck’s 1939 depression novel “Grapes of Wrath.”  Mark Hudson will lead us.   We will meet at 11AM on Thursday, February 28, 2019, at (I assume) the Indiana Writer’s Center in the Circle City Industrial Complex (near 10th and Brookside).  Please join us and perk up our discussion.  Salman Rushdie will be in Indianapolis to speak at the “Night of Vonnegut”  on April 11, 2019.

Dave Young

********************************************

Here is wikipedia’s description of the work:

The Satanic Verses

The Satanic Verses is Salman Rushdie‘s fourth novel, first published in 1988 and inspired in part by the life of Muhammad. As with his previous books, Rushdie used magical realism and relied on contemporary events and people to create his characters. The title refers to the satanic verses, a group of Quranic verses that refer to three Pagan Meccan goddesses: Allāt, Uzza, and Manāt.[1] The part of the story that deals with the “satanic verses” was based on accounts from the historians al-Waqidi and al-Tabari.[1]

In the United Kingdom, The Satanic Verses received positive reviews, was a 1988 Booker Prize finalist (losing to Peter Carey‘s Oscar and Lucinda) and won the 1988 Whitbread Award for novel of the year.[2] However, major controversy ensued as Muslims accused it of blasphemy and mocking their faith. The outrage among Muslims resulted in a fatwā calling for Rushdie’s death issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Supreme Leader of Iran, on 14 February 1989. The result was several failed assassination attempts on Rushdie, who was placed under police protection by the UK government, and attacks on several connected individuals such as translator Hitoshi Igarashi (leading, in Igarashi’s case, to death).

The book was banned in India as hate speech directed towards a specific religious group.[3][4]

The Satanic Verses consists of a frame narrative, using elements of magical realism, interlaced with a series of sub-plots that are narrated as dream visions experienced by one of the protagonists. The frame narrative, like many other stories by Rushdie, involves Indian expatriates in contemporary England. The two protagonists, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, are both actors of Indian Muslim background. Farishta is a Bollywood superstar who specialises in playing Hindu deities. (The character is partly based on Indian film stars Amitabh Bachchan and N. T. Rama Rao.)[5] Chamcha is an emigrant who has broken with his Indian identity and works as a voiceover artist in England.

At the beginning of the novel, both are trapped in a hijacked plane flying from India to Britain[6]. The plane explodes over the English Channel, but the two are magically saved. In a miraculous transformation, Farishta takes on the personality of the archangel Gabriel and Chamcha that of a devil. Chamcha is arrested and passes through an ordeal of police abuse as a suspected illegal immigrant. Farishta’s transformation can partly be read on a realistic level as the symptom of the protagonist’s developing schizophrenia.

Both characters struggle to piece their lives back together. Farishta seeks and finds his lost love, the English mountaineer Allie Cone, but their relationship is overshadowed by his mental illness. Chamcha, having miraculously regained his human shape, wants to take revenge on Farishta for having forsaken him after their common fall from the hijacked plane. He does so by fostering Farishta’s pathological jealousy and thus destroying his relationship with Allie. In another moment of crisis, Farishta realises what Chamcha has done, but forgives him and even saves his life.

Both return to India. Farishta throws Allie off a high rise in another outbreak of jealousy and then commits suicide. Chamcha, who has found not only forgiveness from Farishta but also reconciliation with his estranged father and his own Indian identity, decides to remain in India.

Dream sequences

Embedded in this story is a series of half-magic dream vision narratives, ascribed to the mind of Farishta. They are linked together by many thematic details as well as by the common motifs of divine revelation, religious faith and fanaticism, and doubt.

One of these sequences contains most of the elements that have been criticised as offensive to Muslims. It is a transformed re-narration of the life of Muhammad (called “Mahound” or “the Messenger” in the novel) in Mecca (“Jahiliyyah“). At its centre is the episode of the so-called satanic verses, in which the prophet first proclaims a revelation in favour of the old polytheistic deities, but later renounces this as an error induced by the Devil. There are also two opponents of the “Messenger”: a demonic heathen priestess, Hind bint Utbah, and an irreverent skeptic and satirical poet, Baal. When the prophet returns to the city in triumph, Baal goes into hiding in an underground brothel, where the prostitutes assume the identities of the prophet’s wives. Also, one of the prophet’s companions claims that he, doubting the authenticity of the “Messenger,” has subtly altered portions of the Quran as they were dictated to him.

The second sequence tells the story of Ayesha, an Indian peasant girl who claims to be receiving revelations from the Archangel Gibreel. She entices all her village community to embark on a foot pilgrimage to Mecca, claiming that they will be able to walk across the Arabian Sea. The pilgrimage ends in a catastrophic climax as the believers all walk into the water and disappear, amid disturbingly conflicting testimonies from observers about whether they just drowned or were in fact miraculously able to cross the sea.

A third dream sequence presents the figure of a fanatic expatriate religious leader, the “Imam”, in a late-20th-century setting. This figure is a transparent allusion to the life of Ruhollah Khomeini in his Parisian exile, but it is also linked through various recurrent narrative motifs to the figure of the “Messenger”.

Literary criticism and analysis

Overall, the book received favourable reviews from literary critics. In a 2003 volume of criticism of Rushdie’s career, the influential critic Harold Bloom named The Satanic Verses “Rushdie’s largest aesthetic achievement”.[7]

Timothy Brennan called the work “the most ambitious novel yet published to deal with the immigrant experience in Britain” that captures the immigrants’ dream-like disorientation and their process of “union-by-hybridization”. The book is seen as “fundamentally a study in alienation.”[2]

Muhammd Mashuq ibn Ally wrote that “The Satanic Verses is about identity, alienation, rootlessness, brutality, compromise, and conformity. These concepts confront all migrants, disillusioned with both cultures: the one they are in and the one they join. Yet knowing they cannot live a life of anonymity, they mediate between them both. The Satanic Verses is a reflection of the author’s dilemmas.” The work is an “albeit surreal, record of its own author’s continuing identity crisis.”[2] Ally said that the book reveals the author ultimately as “the victim of nineteenth-century British colonialism.”[2] Rushdie himself spoke confirming this interpretation of his book, saying that it was not about Islam, “but about migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death, London and Bombay.”[2] He has also said “It’s a novel which happened to contain a castigation of Western materialism. The tone is comic.”[2]

After the Satanic Verses controversy developed, some scholars familiar with the book and the whole of Rushdie’s work, like M. D. Fletcher, saw the reaction as ironic. Fletcher wrote “It is perhaps a relevant irony that some of the major expressions of hostility toward Rushdie came from those about whom and (in some sense) for whom he wrote.”[8] He said the manifestations of the controversy in Britain “embodied an anger arising in part from the frustrations of the migrant experience and generally reflected failures of multicultural integration, both significant Rushdie themes. Clearly, Rushdie’s interests centrally include explorations of how migration heightens one’s awareness that perceptions of reality are relative and fragile, and of the nature of religious faith and revelation, not to mention the political manipulation of religion. Rushdie’s own assumptions about the importance of literature parallel in the literal value accorded the written word in Islamic tradition to some degree. But Rushdie seems to have assumed that diverse communities and cultures share some degree of common moral ground on the basis of which dialogue can be pieced together, and it is perhaps for this reason that he underestimated the implacable nature of the hostility evoked by The Satanic Verses, even though a major theme of that novel is the dangerous nature of closed, absolutist belief systems.”[8]

Rushdie’s influences have long been a point of interest to scholars examining his work. According to W. J. Weatherby, influences on The Satanic Verses were listed as James Joyce, Italo Calvino, Franz Kafka, Frank Herbert, Thomas Pynchon, Mervyn Peake, Gabriel García Márquez, Jean-Luc Godard, J. G. Ballard and William S. Burroughs.[9] Angela Carter writes that the novel contains “inventions such as the city of Jahilia, ‘built entirely of sand,’ that gives a nod to Calvino and a wink to Frank Herbert”.[10]

Srinivas Aravamudan‘s analysis of The Satanic Verses stressed the satiric nature of the work and held that while it and Midnight’s Children may appear to be more “comic epic”, “clearly those works are highly satirical” in a similar vein of postmodern satire pioneered by Joseph Heller in Catch-22.[8]

The Satanic Verses continued to exhibit Rushdie’s penchant for organising his work in terms of parallel stories. Within the book “there are major parallel stories, alternating dream and reality sequences, tied together by the recurring names of the characters in each; this provides intertexts within each novel which comment on the other stories.” The Satanic Verses also exhibits Rushdie’s common practice of using allusions to invoke connotative links. Within the book he referenced everything from mythology to “one-liners invoking recent popular culture”.[8]

Controversy

Main article: The Satanic Verses controversy

The novel provoked great controversy in the Muslim community for what some Muslims believed were blasphemous references. They accused him of misusing freedom of speech.[11] Pakistan banned the book in November 1988. On 12 February 1989, a 10,000-strong protest against Rushdie and the book took place in Islamabad, Pakistan. Six protesters were killed in an attack on the American Cultural Center, and an American Express office was ransacked. As the controversy spread, the importing of the book was banned in India[12] and it was burned in demonstrations in the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, the Commission for Racial Equality and a liberal think tank, the Policy Studies Institute, held seminars on the Rushdie affair. They did not invite the author Fay Weldon, who spoke out against burning books, but did invite Shabbir Akhtar, a Cambridge philosophy graduate who called for “a negotiated compromise” which “would protect Muslim sensibilities against gratuitous provocation”. The journalist and author Andy McSmith wrote at the time “We are witnessing, I fear, the birth of a new and dangerously illiberal “liberal” orthodoxy designed to accommodate Dr Akhtar and his fundamentalist friends.”[13]

Fatwa

In mid-February 1989, following a violent riot against the book in Pakistan, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Supreme Leader of Iran and a Shi’a Muslim scholar, issued a fatwa calling for the death of Rushdie and his publishers,[14] and called for Muslims to point him out to those who can kill him if they cannot themselves. Although the British Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher gave Rushdie round-the-clock police protection, many politicians on both sides were hostile to the author. British Labour MP Keith Vaz led a march through Leicester shortly after he was elected in 1989 calling for the book to be banned, while the Conservative politician Norman Tebbit, the party’s former chairman, called Rushdie an “outstanding villain” whose “public life has been a record of despicable acts of betrayal of his upbringing, religion, adopted home and nationality”.[15]

Journalist Christopher Hitchens staunchly defended Rushdie and urged critics to condemn the violence of the fatwa instead of blaming the novel or the author. Hitchens understood the fatwa to be the opening shot in a cultural war on freedom.[16]

Despite a conciliatory statement by Iran in 1998, and Rushdie’s declaration that he would stop living in hiding, the Iranian state news agency reported in 2006 that the fatwa would remain in place permanently since fatwas can only be rescinded by the person who first issued them, and Khomeini had since died.[17]

Violence, assassinations and attempts to harm

With police protection, Rushdie escaped direct physical harm, but others associated with his book have suffered violent attacks. Hitoshi Igarashi, his Japanese translator, was stabbed to death on 11 July 1991. Ettore Capriolo [it], the Italian translator, was seriously injured in a stabbing in Milan on 3 July 1991.[18] William Nygaard, the publisher in Norway, was shot three times in an attempted assassination in Oslo in October 1993, but survived. Aziz Nesin, the Turkish translator, was possibly the intended target in the events that led to the Sivas massacre on 2 July 1993 in Sivas, Turkey, which resulted in 37 deaths.[19]

In September 2012, Rushdie expressed doubt that The Satanic Verses would be published today because of a climate of “fear and nervousness”.[20]

In March 2016, PEN America reported that the bounty for the Rushdie fatwa was raised by $600,000 (£430,000). Top Iranian media contributed this sum, adding to the existing $2.8m already offered.[21] In response, the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel prize for literature, denounced the death sentence and called it “a serious violation of free speech.” This was the first time they had commented on the issue since publication.[22]

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All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

We gathered for the last time at the Senate Avenue location of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library (the library is searching for a new site) to discuss KV’s “Breakfast of Champions; or Goodbye Blue Monday.”  This unusual novel, KV’s seventh, was published in 1973, soon after Kurt had celebrated his fiftieth birthday. Those who participated in the discussion were:     Mark Hudson,  Bill Briscoe, Gene Helveston,  John Hawn,  Karen Lyst,  Phil Watts, and  Dave Young.

Our discussion leader, Dave,  went full Warhol as he dove into his knapsack and pulled out a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket stuffed with various icons relating to the non-plot in KV’s rambling vehicle of metafiction.  Putting on his mirrored sunglasses, he pretended to be Kurt himself, and transported the club back to Dwayne Hoover’s Holiday Inn Lounge in Midland City, Ohio where the waitress served “the breakfast of champions” and Dwayne’s homosexual son “Bunny” played the piano. As Supreme Creator of the Universe, he made all of the book  clubbers fictional characters and filled them with his words as he sorted through the icons. 

There was a can of Drano,  a functioning .38 calibre Smith and Wesson Detective’s Special Revolver,  a paper airplane, a mousetrap,  a pint of Jack Daniel’s Black Label, and a bottle of English Leather cologne among other various iconic items.  No attempt was made to memorialize KV’s whimsical pornographic drawings and there was little mention of his satirical habit of linking his male characters to the size of their penii  (KV gratuitiously informed us that his member measured three inches long and six inches in diameter) or his scatalogical description of the manufacture of alcohol.

To celebrate reaching the age of fifty, KV was (according to his preface) dumping out all the junk in his life.   He had recently become famous with his well-received “Slaughterhouse Five” and was cashing in.  He believed that his fiction-writing days were over.  There was speculation that much of the material in “Breakfast” had been cut out of “Slaughterhouse” but it is hard to see much overlap between the two.  “Breakfast” was on the best seller list for almost a year and is usually among the top three works cited when readers are asked to name their  favorite KV novel. Kurt was twelve years away from his suicide attempt but he put his depression aside long enough to write seven more novels before he closed his peephole at the age of eighty-four.

The first half of the novel is relatively conventional.  Two characters created and controlled by KV  (who will eventually meet them later in the novel)  are described as they head toward a fateful meeting in Midland City.  Kilgore Trout, an unsuccessful author, is hitch-hiking his way toward a festival in which he will receive an award.  Dwight Hoover, who among other ventures owns the local Pontiac dealership along with a stake in the Holiday Inn, is falling apart since his wife’s suicide by Drano.  Dwight hopes that Trout will give him a reason to live and Trout does so by giving him one of his many trashy novels.  This novel is entitled “Now It Can Be Told” and it gives Dwight the belief that he is the only person with free will in a world populated with robots.  This causes him all sorts of trouble.  So the two of them have an uneasy meeting with KV at the Holiday Inn and the novel quickly becomes metafiction.  KV, the Vonnegut Character, writes:

“Now Trout was beginning to catch on that he was sitting next to the person who had created him.  He was embarassed.  It was hard for him to know how to respond, particularly since his responses were going to be anything I said they were.”  Hmmmmm.   The last half of the novel starts to spin out of control.

Although our group is hardly hung up on political correctness, we found much of KV’s verbage to be off-putting even considering the time frame in which it was written.   His frequent casual use of “nigger” and his characterization of women and homosexuals seemed to be rather pointless.   Maybe he was speaking in the vernacular of Midland City, Ohio or maybe not.  Who knows.   

The final few paragraphs were jolting as they inserted what must have been KV’s deeply felt resentment toward his mother (who left him a “legacy of suicide”) and his hen-pecked father who could never meet his mother’s expectations.   Vonnegut as an omnipitent character in his own novel granted free will to his alter ego character Kilgore Traut and Trout then spoke to KV:

“Here is what Kilgore Trout cried out to me in my father’s voice ‘Make me young, make me young, make me young!’ “ and then Vonnegut closes with a drawing of himself tearing up.

Someone said that this is the voice of KV, full of self-loathing. Others ventured that this novel is nothing but a post-structuralist takedown of the modern novel.  It’s a great big joke on all of us and KV doesn’t really care what we think.

We voted this work a dismal 5.3 on the vaunted KV ten point scale.  This is one of the lowest ratings in the club’s history.  Those of us who had read it more than once agreed that the work did not improve with time.  KV, himself, when asked about “Breakfast” while it was a work in progress, described it as “a piece of shit.”  He later put a grade of “C” on the novel.  No one disagreed with his assessment. 

Our reading schedule for 2019 is almost complete and is posted on the Upcoming Books and Books Reviewed page of this blog.   We are still open for September 2019.  We need someone to suggest a book and lead its discussion to make the year complete.  

All seven of us trekked to Good Morning Mama’s, 1001 E. 54th Street, for lunch and further discussion.  At our next meeting at 11AM on January 24, 2019, we will discuss Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel “Satanic Verses.”   Due to the temporary closure and relocation of the KV Memorial Library, we will be looking for a new meeting space.  We also need a volunteer to lead the discussion.   Rushdie is coming to Indianapolis in April, 2019 and we want to be ready for him!

Dave Young

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New York Times Book Review

Breakfast of Champions, Or Goodbye Blue Monday

Reviewed CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT MAY 3, 1973

You have to hand it to Kurt Vonnegut,  Jr. In his eighth [sic] novel, “Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday,” he performs considerable complex magic. He makes pornography seem like any old plumbing, violence like lovemaking, innocence like evil, and guilt like child’s play. He wheels out all the latest fashionable complaints about America–her racism, her gift for destroying language, her technological greed and selfishness–and makes them seem fresh, funny, outrageous, hateful, and lovable, all at the same time. He draws pictures, for God’s sake–simple, rough, yet surprisingly seductive sketches of everything from Volkswagens to electric chairs. He weaves into his plot a dozen or so glorious synopses of Vonnegut stories one almost wishes were fleshed out into whole books. He very nearly levitates. Yet–astonishingly–this fiction is also a factual announcement of his intention to give up fiction. And what mars the book is that one believes the fiction, but not the facts.

Up to a certain point, it is easy to accept what is going on in this “tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.” It’s amusing and charming, yet oddly frightening, to watch Kilgore Trout–the undiscovered science-fiction writer who has kept popping up in Mr. Vonnegut’s previous works–hitchhiking across America to a Festival of the Arts in Midland City, where he has been invited through the lone intervention of that benign-evil millionaire, Eliot Rosewater.

It’s quite marvelous the way Trout contemplates the word PYRAMID written in giant letters on the side of a trailer-truck he is riding in, and then wonders, “Why would anybody in the business of high-speed transportation name his business and his trucks after buildings which haven’t moved an eighth of an inch since Christ was born?” And gets the answer from the truck’s driver: “He [the boss] liked the sound of it.” Which leads Trout to imagine a story “about a planet where the language kept turning into pure music, because the creatures there were so enchanted with the sounds. . . . So leaders in government and commerce, in order to function, had to invent new and much uglier vocabularies and sentence structures all the time, which would resist being transmuted to music.”

With such graceful, gentle satirical thrusts, Mr. Vonnegut takes care of most of what is absurd and downright evil in American civilization–everything from Vietnam to sex, from war to massage parlors.

And it’s charming, yet oddly terrifying–charming terror, terrifying charm may well be Mr. Vonnegut’s exclusive trademark by now–to see Dwayne Hoover, the automobile dealer who owns much of Midland city, going inexorably insane because of the bad chemicals in his system. For Dwayne Hoover’s incipient insanity–which will break out when Hoover reads a story by Kilgore Trout (a message from the Creator of the Universe telling the reader that he alone has free will among a race of robots)–enables Mr. Vonnegut to skewer everything that is absurd and evil in the rest of civilization–from Nazis to paranoia, from genocide to people bogged down in their various bad chemistries. As we all ought to know by now, there are few writers around with Mr. Vonnegut’s gift for assuming the guise of deadpan and then spotlighting without malice or bitterness the most hideous aspect of the human species.

But I began worrying after a while about certain narrative charms that Vonnegut keeps plying. After several repetitions, I got bothered by his repeated use of the exhortation to “Listen” with which he begins so many of his paragraphs, as well as the three little words “And so on” with which he concludes some of his most appalling descriptions. Even those dumb, lovable drawings began to pall after a time. I think I understand what he is getting at–that fictional art simply won’t serve any more as he approaches middle age and a deeper insight to his own motives for writing (not to mention the impotence of art to purge the earth of evil); and that the persona who is creating “Breakfast of Champions” is trying to get a last desperate grip on the most simple rudiments of story-telling. But there is a certain coyness in this desperation, especially since it is surrounded by so much polish and inventiveness.

And when Mr. Vonnegut’s persona gives up fiction before our very eyes. . . . When he self- destructs himself as a novelist by first warning us in the middle of his book that “Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun story-telling.” . . .And then, at the very end, telling his characters that they are free, releasing them, and then somersaulting “lazily and pleasantly” into the void of his private concerns. . . . I found myself asking questions that blighted the experience of reading “Breakfast of Champions.” Most of these questions are too complicated to be squeezed into this space. But not least among them were these: if your fiction must be destroyed, Mr. Vonnegut, then why create more fiction in the process of destroying it? If you must beg comparison to Tolstoy freeing his serfs, or Jefferson his slaves, why not just do the deed? Or are you just kidding us?

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All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

We had a good turnout for our discussion of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1991 autobiographical collage “Fates Worse Than Death.”   Diane Richards was our very able discussion leader sheparding Celia Latz, Janet Penwell, Phil Watts, Karen Lyst, John Sturman, Mark Hudson, Dave Young, John Hawn, and Bill Briscoe through the session.  Celia announced that she is moving to Columbus, Ohio, but will remain with us in spirit.  We will miss her immensely but Bill has rounded up two promising new discussers to replace her.

It is difficult to approach a collection of KV essays such as this.  He rambles all over the place, sticking in pieces of other essays, old speeches, and random bits of his personal history which he uses as a springboard to make an often humorous philosophical point.  Well, he did call this work a “collage” so we were forewarned.

Kurt was almost 70 when he spit this book out.  His suicide attempt was behind him and his creative years were fading away.  Little flashes of humor came through the fog of his depression and his evident dissatisfaction with the state of life in America.  It appears that his marriage was in trouble as he seemed to go out ofKurt  his way to find praise for his second wife.  He downplayed the role of love in marriage saying a marriage was over only after you lose respect for your spouse.   

We spent some time going over the 16th section or chapter in which he expounds his views on religion.  Not much new here for those who have previously studied Vonnegut.  For that matter, his autobiographical bits are not much more informative.  For a man who is regarded as being outspoken and extremely honest,  he is rather guarded about the more intimate facets of his life.

We were puzzled by his comment that WWII really didn’t affect him when it seems to almost everyone that his experience as a prisoner of war in fire-bombed Dresden was at the very center of his being.  He often joked that he was one of the few who benefited from the destruction of Dresden because “Slaughterhouse Five” made him rich and famous.   Perhaps he was merely disassociating his support of WWII as a “just war” from the pacifism he expressed during the War in Vietnam.   After praising the Episcopalianism of his two wives,  he launches in to a rehash of a 1986 lecture he delivered in Rochester, NY following a graduation address he gave at the University of Rhode Island.”   Kurt says that he is claimed by the Unitarian-Universalists and he has no difficulty in relating to them.   As for Christianity he sees it as a lot of “baloney” and a tool of warmongers.  “And stay clear of the Ten Commandments, as do the television evangelists.  Those things are booby-trapped, because right in the middle of them is one commandment which would, if taken seriously, cripple modern religion as show business.  It is this commandment: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ “

The preceeding chapter contains, in its guts, the title of the work without being very explicit as to what exactly are “fates worse than death.”  This is built around what KV calls a “naive sermon” that he delivered at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in NYC at the invitation of his buddy,  Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore, Jr.   If that name sounds familiar to you, you might recall that Paul Moore was the dean of Christ Church Cathedral on Monument Circle in Indianapolis from 1957 to 1964.   Although KV tells you that he and Moore were great friends and travelled to the Galapagos together,  he does not tell you that Moore was once a mentor to the Rev Jim Jones of Kool-Aid fame and helped establish him in the Indianapolis ministry.  Moore, raised in one of America’s richest families was a World War II Marine hero in the Battle of Guadacanal, a social activist who did much to combat racism,  the father of nine children and a closeted homosexual who was not outed until after his death in 2003.  After ranting about the insanity of Nuclear War,  KV closes the chapter with this naive quote:  “A pregnant woman asked me one time if I thought it was wrong to bring a child into such an awful world.  I replied that what made living almost worthwhile for me was all the saints I met, and I named Bishop Moore.”

Despite some reservations about the lack ot editing and so forth, we gave this rambling collage an 8.0 on the fabulous KV 10.0 rating scale.  For our next adventure, we will take on KV’s seventh novel “Breakfast of Champions; or Goodbye, Blue Monday” (1973).   Dave wll drive us through the depressing landscape of Midland City, Ohio and its many despicable residents.  Come join us at 11AM on Thursday, December 13, 2018, at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.

After leaving the library, eight of us retreated to Nada, 11 E. Maryland St, to indulge in some upscale Mexican cuisine and some more conversation.

Dave Young

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Return of the Old Rambler, doing a replay on his 1981 autobiographical collage Palm Sunday, this time pasting together a memoir from speeches, forewords, articles, and so on written since 1981. Norman Mailer invented this format with Advertisements for Myself (1959) and no one, including Mailer, has done it as well since. Vonnegut adds plenty of humor to his new model but not much sinew. There’s something truly self-defeating about parenthetical asides that leave each page of copy slack with interruptions. He includes vague forewords to Franklin Library editions of his more recent novels; writes of his brushes with Salman Rushdie (who, despite a friendship with Vonnegut, shot down one of his novels, with Vonnegut seriously thinking of adding another team to the hit list on Rushdie); comments on the firebombing of Dresden; recalls dead friends who appeared in Slaughterhouse-Five and dead fellow novelists Nelson Algren, Donald Barthelme, Hemingway, James Jones, Irwin Shaw, and others; and discusses his own incompetence as a speech-writer, his dislike of or inability to read his own works, and a suicide attempt that was foiled by a stomach pump. Vonnegut pictures himself as a depressive, though his less-than-faint hope for humanity is not as corroded as Mark Twain’s during his later years. Vonnegut’s most well-developed theme is in the title, as he we  ighs fates worse than death, including crucifixion (enslavement by the Reverend Jim Jones of the Guyana Kool-Aid horror doesn’t measure up). His most memorable moments are about his first wife Jane and her death from cancer; his architect father, who never got a chance to show his stuff; and his deep feelings for fellow Dresden POW Bernard V. O’Hare. Vonnegut writes best about people, while his think pieces are sliced up with asides or dry-gulched by his alter ego. Patchy.

Pub Date: Sept. 5th, 1991

ISBN: 0425134067

Page count: 240pp

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 20th, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1991

Meeting, October 25, 2018

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

Our selection for this month was “Soldier From The War Returning.”  A 2009 non-fiction examination of the difficulties WWII veterans experienced as they attempted to re-enter civilian society.  Thomas Childers, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania,  studies three veterans (including his father) and the particular problems they encountered.  Those participating in the discussion  were Bill Briscoe, John Sturman, Phil Watts, Mark Hudson, Janet Hodgkin, Dave Young, John Hawn, Diane Richards and our moderator for this book, Karen Lystra.

We discussed the turbulent times of the late 1940’s through which many of our clubbers lived.

Our government was hesitant to bring so many soldiers back to the US quickly as it was feared they would bring their warlike tendencies home with them.  So, demobilization was slowed and the battle-hardened veterans demonstrated in many foreign capitols until the government relented.   Back in the US there was turmoil in the labor market as workers had foregone pay raises throughout the depression and the war.  There were many strikes.  Housing was in short supply and most veterans ended up living with family and friends for an extended period of time.  The divorce rate shot up the stigma of divorce went away as the termination of marriages became acceptable.  The GI Bill opened up college to a large number of veterans who formed a new middle-class that drove the economy of  Piketty’s  “golden age” from 1945 to 1978.

We are so attuned to thinking of the “greatest generation” and the celebratory nature of our culture as we pulled out of the great depression and a terrible war that we overlook the misery that many returning vets experienced.  Although some combat related illnesses were discussed under the rubric of “shell shock” or “combat fatigue” the concept of PTSD was unknown and many vets with mental problems were simply told to “suck it up” and get on with their lives.

Prof. Lystra then directed our discussion toward Kurt Vonnegut and read the letter he wrote to his family while he was waiting to return home after the war (see below).  In the letter he describes serveral events involving death and destruction that would be traumatic for anyone but which he survived using the survivor’s guilt catch phrase “but not me.”   Certainly he was a candidate for post traumatic stress disorder, but he may have been able to process his trauma better through the art of writing.   Does a great artist really need to suffer?  We speculated that he still would have been a writer without his wartime experience but perhaps not so accomplished.  It took him twenty years to finish “Slaughterhouse Five” his most-acclaimed novel.   His approach to life emphasized kindness rather than anger and in his old age he seemed to be rather depressed.  Some of his critics detect depression in all of his novels.  Perhaps his was a case of delayed PTSD.

We found this book to be thoughtful and well-constructed.  Perhaps Childers should not have used his own family as material for a third of the book.  It was perhaps too convenient.  His father died when he was very young and he had to reverse engineer his father’s story from his mother’s retelling.  Maybe Childers is working out his own trauma.

We rated this book 8.6 on the infallable ten point KV scale.  It is time to start thinking about the books that we will read for 2019, our ninth year of existance as a book club.

All nine of us were comfortably seated  in the back room for lunch at the Lincoln Square Pancake House,  2330 North Meridian where among many topics, we  (with Willis and Grace in mind) respectfully discussed the ins and outs of paraplegic sex.  Dr. Sturman helpfully referred us to Wilt Dakin’s 1948 study “Urological Oddities” for further information.

Diane Richards will return next month to help us understand KV’s collection of essays “Fates Worse than Death.”   Due to the Thanksgiving holiday, we will meet on the fifth Thursday, November 29, 2018 at 11AM in the KV Memorial Library.   The December meeting is scheduled for 12/13/18 when Dave Young will moderate KV’s “Breakfast of Champions.”

KV business.  VonnegutFest is coming up around KV’s birthday, November 11.  Check the library website for all of the events.  Of particular interest is a session with Indianapolis author, John Green on November 9, 2018.  Night of Vonnegut is coming up on 4/11/18 and the speaker will be highly-decorated author Salman Rushdie.  Earlybird tickets available for $125.

Our very own Bill Briscoe gave a podcast interview on 10/10/18 to our mutual friend Morton Marcus on KV and the Library.  You can access Mort’s site by googling “Podcast – Who Gets What.”  Choose item #4 and listen to it on iTunes if you have it.

Dave Young

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Transcript  (from original typed letter dated 5/29/45 – DEY)

FROM:    Pfc. K. Vonnegut, Jr.,     12102964 U. S. Army.

TO:    Kurt Vonnegut,   Williams Creek,      Indianapolis, Indiana.

Dear people:

I’m told that you were probably never informed that I was anything other than “missing in action.” Chances are that you also failed to receive any of the letters I wrote from Germany. That leaves me a lot of explaining to do — in precis:

I’ve been a prisoner of war since December 19th, 1944, when our division was cut to ribbons by Hitler’s last desperate thrust through Luxemburg and Belgium. Seven Fanatical Panzer Divisions hit us and cut us off from the rest of Hodges’ First Army. The other American Divisions on our flanks managed to pull out: We were obliged to stay and fight. Bayonets aren’t much good against tanks: Our ammunition, food and medical supplies gave out and our casualties out-numbered those who could still fight – so we gave up. The 106th got a Presidential Citation and some British Decoration from Montgomery for it, I’m told, but I’ll be damned if it was worth it. I was one of the few who weren’t wounded. For that much thank God.

Well, the supermen marched us, without food, water or sleep to Limberg, a distance of about sixty miles, I think, where we were loaded and locked up, sixty men to each small, unventilated, unheated box car. There were no sanitary accommodations — the floors were covered with fresh cow dung. There wasn’t room for all of us to lie down. Half slept while the other half stood. We spent several days, including Christmas, on that Limberg siding. On Christmas eve the Royal Air Force bombed and strafed our unmarked train. They killed about one-hundred-and-fifty of us. We got a little water Christmas Day and moved slowly across Germany to a large P.O.W. Camp in Muhlburg, South of Berlin. We were released from the box cars on New Year’s Day. The Germans herded us through scalding delousing showers. Many men died from shock in the showers after ten days of starvation, thirst and exposure. But I didn’t.

Under the Geneva Convention, Officers and Non-commissioned Officers are not obliged to work when taken prisoner. I am, as you know, a Private. One-hundred-and-fifty such minor beings were shipped to a Dresden work camp on January 10th. I was their leader by virtue of the little German I spoke. It was our misfortune to have sadistic and fanatical guards. We were refused medical attention and clothing: We were given long hours at extremely hard labor. Our food ration was two-hundred-and-fifty grams of black bread and one pint of unseasoned potato soup each day. After desperately trying to improve our situation for two months and having been met with bland smiles I told the guards just what I was going to do to them when the Russians came. They beat me up a little. I was fired as group leader. Beatings were very small time: — one boy starved to death and the SS Troops shot two for stealing food.

On about February 14th the Americans came over, followed by the R.A.F. their combined labors killed 250,000 people in twenty-four hours and destroyed all of Dresden — possibly the world’s most beautiful city. But not me.

After that we were put to work carrying corpses from Air-Raid shelters; women, children, old men; dead from concussion, fire or suffocation. Civilians cursed us and threw rocks as we carried bodies to huge funeral pyres in the city.

When General Patton took Leipzig we were evacuated on foot to (‘the Saxony-Czechoslovakian border’?). There we remained until the war ended. Our guards deserted us. On that happy day the Russians were intent on mopping up isolated outlaw resistance in our sector. Their planes (P-39’s) strafed and bombed us, killing fourteen, but not me.

Eight of us stole a team and wagon. We traveled and looted our way through Sudetenland and Saxony for eight days, living like kings. The Russians are crazy about Americans. The Russians picked us up in Dresden. We rode from there to the American lines at Halle in Lend-Lease Ford trucks. We’ve since been flown to Le Havre.

I’m writing from a Red Cross Club in the Le Havre P.O.W. Repatriation Camp. I’m being wonderfully well feed and entertained. The state-bound ships are jammed, naturally, so I’ll have to be patient. I hope to be home in a month. Once home I’ll be given twenty-one days recuperation at Atterbury, about $600 back pay and — get this — sixty (60) days furlough.

I’ve too damned much to say, the rest will have to wait, I can’t receive mail here so don’t write.

May 29, 1945

Love,

Kurt – Jr.

********************************************

Timeline for KV in the European Theatre of Operations (ETO)

Early December, 1944.  Arrived at the French port of LeHavre.  Was assigned to the   423rd Regiment of the 106th Infantry Division

12/6/44    Unit was ordered to St. Vith, Belgium to relieve another regiment (540 km east of  LeHavre)

12/19/44   Captured near Schnee Eifel (in the Ardennes) and sent to Stalag IV-B POW camp in Muhlburg, Germany (629 km east of Schnee Eifel)

1/1/45      Arrived at POW camp in Muhlburg.

1/10/45    Sent to work camp at Dresden  (250 km northeast)

2/14/45    Allied bombing of Dresden

4/25/45     Allies capture nearby city of Leipzig and POW’s are evacuated to the  Czech Border which is only a few kilometers east

5/8/45       Victory Europe Day.  German guards stand down and KV and comrades make  an 8 day trek to link up with the allies

5/15/45 (approx)    KV and comrades picked up by the Russians and delivered to  the Americans.   They are sent to LeHavre (approximately 1100km)

5/29/45     Settled in at LeHavre while awaiting sea transport back to the US and on  this date  types a letter to his parents notifying them of his continued existence

June, 1945.  Returned to the U.S. and assigned to Camp Atterbury

(6,558 km)

1,888 Words

This is a place holder until I get the real skinny on our last meeting which I missed because I was in Chicago! The group met on September 27, 2018 to discuss “The Color Purple” a 1985 novel by Alice Walker.  John Sturman led the discussion.   I think that the meeting took place at the Vonnegut Room in the Atheneum because neither the law firm or the KV Memorial Library could find space for us.  Not a good sign.   [update 10/3/18]   Briscoe advised me that the Vonnegut Room was not available but that another venue in the Atheneum was arranged.  Lunch was served.  The great minds attending voted this epistolary novel an “8” on the fabulous Vonnegut 10 point scale. Our next meeting will be on Thursday, October 25, 2018, at 11AM.  Not sure where we will meet.    Karen Lystra will help us get through Thomas Childer’s “The Soldier from the War Returning”   Dave Young

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

Seven of us appeared on this beautiful August day to discuss Tom Wolfe’s 2004 novel “I Am Charlotte Simmons.”  All claimed to have read the 676 page tome whose driving narrative kept the leaves turning.  Fritz Hadley,  Janet Penwell, Phil Watts,  Kathleen Angelone, John Hawn and Bill Briscoe joined in the fun while Dave Young tried to keep the conversation on track.  Celia, Karen, and John sents regrets that they wouldn’t be able to show.

The seventy-something Tom Wolfe, Master of the New Journalism, descended on Duke (rendered as Dupont in the Novel)  University, to gather material for his third novel “I Am Charlotte Simmons”  sometime early in the 21st Century.  It is a daunting task for someone from an older generation to penetrate the mind of the 18 to 22 year old set with its ever new language, mores, politics, and orientation toward race and sex.    Wolfe does a pretty good job of weaving the freshman Charlotte’s search for identity as she traverses the space from a cultural backwater in the Appalachian mountains to a “sophisticated” top-ranked urban university.  He weaves satirical subplots involving Division I basketball at the highest level, Greek life,  the professoriat,  and the notorious “Skullfuck” which was an incident in which two frat rats observed a prominent politician receiving head from an undergrad female, the possible basis for a blackmail attempt.  Wolfe is known for his sharp observation of social and cultural trends and his tendency to use artistic license to the fullest in exaggerating them.

Had not Wolfe been a Southern Gentleman,  he might well have called the book “The Night of the Skullfuck”  because that sex act is the McGuffin that resolves all of the subplots.  This was not an easy topic for our mixed-gender senior citizen group to deal with.  The discussion went off in tangents as most of us preferred to remenisce about our college days in the fifties and sixties.  Although everyone seems to have read every page, we did not fully address the novel.

Most of Wolfe’s non-fiction and fiction centers on males and hyper-masculinity.  His breakthrough 1965  collection of essays “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” dealt with the culture of custom car builders.  “An excellent book by a genius” blurbed our very own Kurt Vonnegut.  “The Right Stuff” examined the heroic world of astronauts.

“Bonfire of the Vanities”  described the humiliation of the Master of the Universe bond trader,  Sherman McCoy who is caught up in the racial morass of NYC..  “A Man in Full” satirizes Atlanta high society and the downfall of a powerful real estate broker in a city rife with racial tension.  “Back to Blood,”  his final novel, was described by some wit as  “Bonfire of the Vanities with Boats.”   Plotting in this novel is very complicated as a hyper-male Cuban in the Miami Police Department does his best to maintain Cuban superiority over the rising tide of Black resentment.

So, Charlotte may seem to be a departure or maybe some left-handed tribute to his daughter who did attend Duke University.  Nevertheless, the book devotes considerable attention to the three main male student characters,  Hoyt, Adam, and JoJo.   They, in a less introspective way,  are also trying to find out who they are and where they are going.  Self esteem rises and falls like a yoyo.   Hoyt, the hot fraternity stud who deflowered Charlotte, looks forward despite his horrible grades to a future as an investment banker (Hello, Sherman McCoy) based on a job offer. The offer was made so he would keep his mouth shut about the skullfuck.  This job offer disappears after Adam,  a nerd who lusts for Charlotte but is rejected because of his self-pity (he thinks he will lose out on a Rhodes Scholarship because of a plagarism charge) writes a story for the campus newspaper exposing the skullfuck.  Hoyt will probably be saved by his wealthy fraternity connections.    Adam, who also works as a tutor to JoJo, the only white starter of the championship Dupont basketball team, is in deep shit because a twerpy history prof who hates athletes has discovered that JoJo submitted a course paper totally written by Adam.  JoJo, who had assumed he would be a high NBA draft pick, is almost destroyed to learn that a charge of plagarism could end his career.  He vows to take his studies seriously despite the ridicule of his coach and teammates.  All is resolved when the nasty prof drops his charge because he hates the politician Adam exposed more than he hates Dupont athletes.

Charlotte, who shares a French class with JoJo,  encourages and inspires him and, pushing all of the groupies aside, he falls in love with her.  The attention she receives from males does not go unnoticed by the sisters of the fancy sororities on campus.  One of them, the “Douches” (Bill stepped in to say that the name had nothing to do with his beloved Delta Upsilon) who had disdained the poor scholarship kid from Appalachia even invited her to participate in rush. The novel ends with Charlotte sitting behind the Dupont Basketball team bench toward the end of an undefeated season.  She came to Dupont with the highest expectations, hoping to live the life of the mind.   She has no interest in basketball, but finds herself clapping the team on.  Wolfe leaves it at that but she seems to be on the path to becoming an NBA wife.  It has become more important to her to become accepted than to become an intellectual.   So delightfully complicated.

Like Vonnegut,  Wolfe was commercially successful but never fully accepted by the writing community and not at all by the academic critics.  But no one denies that he is not a compelling writer whose caustic observations and keen plotting keep the pages turning.   This is entertainment, not literature, they say; a comic book and not a novel.   Three of his contemporaries, Normal Mailer, John Irving, and John Updike railed against him and he shot back calling them “The Three Stooges.”  

One of our number found some problems in his send up of college basketball but the new journalist is always looking for a greater truth than that found in mere facts.  Wolfe can be surprisingly sloppy at times and his tangential explorations of history, philosophy, mind-body dualism and so forth can be a little sophmoric.  He also seems to lose patience with his own writing at times when he allows the narrator to step in and tell us what the characters are up to.    Nevertheless an enjoyable read.

We gave this interesting book an 8.7 on the fabulous KV ten point scale.  The five guys left to lunch at the 100 year old Working Man’s Friend Tavern (In Haughville where Belmont Avenue crosses the Big 4 Railroad Tracks) and added a little more to the discussion.

Our next meeting will be at 11AM on September 27, 2018  when we gather at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library to discuss Alice Walker’s 1985 Novel “The Color Purple.”   John Sturman will help us through.  Please join us, even if you haven’t completed the book!

Dave Young

From: WikiPedia (excerpt)

I am Charlotte Simmons is a 2004 novel by Tom Wolfe, concerning sexual and status relationships at the fictional Dupont University. Wolfe researched the novel by talking to students at North Carolina, Florida, Penn, Duke, Stanford, and Michigan. Wolfe suggested it depicts the American university today at a fictional college that is “Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Duke, and a few other places all rolled into one.”[1]

In May 2008, music video director Liz Friedlander was signed to direct a movie adaptation; the project remains in development.[2]

Plot

I am Charlotte Simmons is the story of college student Charlotte Simmons’s first semester-and-a-half at the prestigious Dupont University. A high school graduate from a poverty-stricken rural town, her intelligence and hard work at school have been rewarded with a full scholarship to Dupont.

As Charlotte prepares to say goodbye to her family and leave for college, an event happens at Dupont that will play an important role in her future. Hoyt Thorpe, member of the exclusive and powerful fraternity Saint Ray, and fellow frat brother Vance, stumble upon an unnamed California Republican governor (who was at the college to speak at the school’s commencement ceremony) receiving oral sex from a female college student. When the governor’s bodyguard spots the two fraternity members, a fight ensues with Hoyt and Vance beating up the bodyguard and fleeing. The story of the night soon spreads across campus, increasing Hoyt’s popularity.

Charlotte arrives at Dupont in the fall. Her roommate is wealthy Beverly, the daughter of the CEO of a huge multinational insurance company. She is obsessed with sex, in particular with members of the school’s lacrosse team.

Jojo Johanssen is a white athlete on the college’s predominantly black basketball team. He is struggling to keep his position because the school recently recruited an up-and-coming black freshman player, and the coach wants to bench Jojo in his senior year. This would severely hurt Jojo’s chances of playing in “the league” (the NBA).

Jojo enjoys the spoils of being a college athlete, such as using a tutor program to force other students to complete his school assignments. Jojo’s “tutor” Adam Gellin is, like Charlotte, from a working-class background. Adam writes for the college’s independent newspaper and is a member of the “Millennial Mutants,” a group of like-minded intellectuals who oppose the anti-intellectualism and class snobbery they see in their fellow students.

Charlotte and Adam first meet at the university’s computer lab, where Adam is to write a paper for Jojo. Charlotte does not back down when Adam insists that he needs the computer more than she does. Adam is instantly smitten.

Charlotte finds herself dealing with the sexual temptations of college life, culminating in her hooking up with Hoyt, who tells Charlotte of catching California’s governor receiving oral sex from a college student. He also tells Charlotte he knows that Adam Gellin has begun investigating the incident and how, at the behest of the governor a large Wall Street firm has offered him (Hoyt) a high-paying entry-level job in exchange for his silence. (The firm, Pierce & Pierce, is the name of the one that Sherman McCoy works for in Wolfe’s earlier novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities.)

Hoyt and Charlotte attend an important fraternity formal together, after which Hoyt takes full advantage of a drunken Charlotte, seducing her into giving up her virginity to him. The following morning, Charlotte is dumped by Hoyt. She is further humiliated when she returns to campus and discovers that Hoyt’s seduction and rejection has been made public via two girls Charlotte had previously befriended. The two cruelly mock Charlotte, both over her poverty-stricken background, and for how she drunkenly lost her virginity.

This drives Charlotte into a depression and eventually into the arms of Adam, who has wanted Charlotte for her beauty, innocence, and intellect since they first met. Charlotte finally emerges from her depression but finds that she has received terrible grades (B, B-, C-, D) for her first semester at Dupont.

As Adam prepares to publish his article, his world collides with Jojo Johanssen’s when a paper that Adam wrote for the athlete is accused of being plagiarized. Jojo, who treats Adam as beneath him socially, denies the plagiarism charge and protects the athletic department’s perversion of the athlete/tutor program from being exposed.

Jojo has begun to transform himself academically from a stereotypical “dumb jock” into a student who takes his academics seriously and even develops an interest in philosophy (partly as a result of Charlotte’s influence). Jerome Quat, Jojo’s professor, confronts Adam about the plagiarized paper and shows sympathy toward him in a college dominated by students obsessed with sports and sex. However, when Adam confesses to having written the paper for Jojo, the professor double-crosses him. He will sacrifice Adam in order to bring down the basketball program, which has circled the wagons to protect Jojo.

This devastates Adam, who breaks down and needs Charlotte to take care of him as he waits to be formally charged with cheating. In the meantime, Adam’s article on “The Night of the Skullfuck” is published. The sordid details of sex, violence, bribery, and a high-profile political figure cause it to be picked up by the national media. The governor’s Presidential ambitions are potentially ruined, and the job offer/bribe made to Hoyt is revoked, effectively shattering Hoyt’s life.

Hoyt now faces a post-graduation judgment day, with his family’s life savings exhausted in order to pay for his college education, and a college transcript with such bad grades that will effectively keep him from getting a job as an investment banker. Jojo’s and Adam’s necks are saved, as the liberal college professor decides to drop the entire plagiarism complaint so as to avoid undercutting Adam’s credibility in destroying the conservative governor’s political career.

Adam’s self-esteem restored, he begins to bask in the glow as the student who brought down a governor. Adam and Charlotte drift apart and she begins to date Jojo, who keeps his position as a starter on the team. Charlotte ascends to the envied position of girlfriend of a star athlete.

Charlotte now reflects upon her first semester with an elitist view, looking down at her former friends and at Hoyt, who casually threw her away. She no longer feels intellectualism is what is most important to her — rather it is being a person recognized as special, regardless of the reason.

Major themes

The book develops themes Wolfe introduces in the title essay from his book Hooking Up. The novel centers on Charlotte, a naive new student at Dupont University, a school boasting a top-ranked basketball program and an Ivy League academic reputation. Despite Dupont’s elite status, in the minds of its students, sex, alcohol, and social status rule the day. The student culture is focused upon gaining material wealth, physical pleasure, and a well-placed social status; academics are only important insofar as they help achieve these goals.

Wolfe took the name “Dupont University” from Dupont Hall, one of the halls where classes are held at his alma mater, Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. The school discussed in the book appears to be an amalgamation of several elite universities. Wolfe denies that the book is fully based on Duke, from which his daughter Alexandra graduated in 2002.

The fictional “St. Ray’s” fraternity is most certainly based upon University of Pennsylvania‘s St. Anthony Hall, or “St. A’s,” where Wolfe attended several events researching for the book, “St. A’s” being on Penn’s Locust Walk, with fictional “St. Ray’s” residing on Wolfe’s “Ladding Walk.” [3]

The basketball star, Jojo Johanssen, is a jock/celebrity character, derived from colleges like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Kentucky, Duke, Stanford, Indiana University and the University of Florida, where, in Wolfe’s perception, student athletes are treated as superior. At the time of publication, J. J. Redick was a prominent white basketball player at Duke University. There is also a reference in the book to a freshman dormitory “Giles”, which is an actual freshman dorm at Duke University.

Besides college life, athletics, and youth sex culture, another major theme that also began in Hooking Up is Tom Wolfe’s interest in neuroscience, specifically the relationship between brain chemistry and free will. Simmons is exposed to questions about inevitability and genetics by her professor Dr. Victor Ransome Starling. In the context of the book, questions of free will are posed by the characters various dramas as Charlotte decides whether or not she will adopt the sexual norms of campus life and Johanssen attempts to become a better student and more disciplined person generally. Interestingly, despite the main characters seemingly confirming the science of inevitability, two side characters (Adam Gellin and Hoyt) are both altered considerably by a chance encounter with a presidential candidate.[4]

Reception:

Reviewer Jacob Weisberg of The New York Times wrote “Wolfe is always showing us something we haven’t quite noticed. But after three thick novels and a novella (surely he will never write a short story), the issue remains: Why does a writer whose ambitions are so fundamentally journalistic insist on processing his reportage into fiction? You may never put down a Tom Wolfe novel. But you never reread one, either.”[5]

London-based Literary Review gave Wolfe its 2004 Bad Sex in Fiction Award, an “honor” established “to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel”, for his writing in I am Charlotte Simmons.[6]

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

Our determined little book club soldiered on with John Hawn, Phil Watts, Mark Hudson, Bill Briscoe, and Dave Young.   Janet Penwell led us through a posthumous (2011) collection of KV’s Short Stories, “While Mortals Sleep.”   We previously read this work in March, 2012.

If you are a short story writer and no magazine wants to buy your stuff, what do you do? In the 1950’s and 60’s KV made a decent living selling such stories to mass circulation magazines until that market dried up. He was left with several stories that didn’t sell including the sixteen that ended up in “While Mortals Sleep.” No fool when it came to marketing, KV ultimately packaged these turkeys with better stuff and sold it all as archival material to the Indiana University Library.

There isn’t much point in going through our discussion of each of these stories. A few of us liked some of the stories, but the overall reaction was “forgettable,” “creepy,” and “outdated.”  These stories have more of an emphasis on women than we are accustomed to in KV’s work.  That may have been because women were more likely to follow the mass magazines than men. His treatment of women was condescending by today’s standards and his stories are even less likely to be published today than they were 60 years ago. I have attached a favorable review which will give you the flavor of some of the stories.

The title story “When Mortals Sleep” (from lyrics to “O Little Town of Bethlehem” – “While Mortals Sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love”) is social commentary on what a travesty the observance of Christmas in America has become. Some of us were chilled when on page 125 (Dial Press) the cynical newspaper editor, observing that the news was slow, says  “It’s about time somebody was running beserk with an automatic shotgun in a kindergarten, isn’t it.”   Such thoughts used to be unthinkable.

About the only pleasure a hard core KV fan can extract from this compendium is the observation of KV’s craft. He is well known for setting the famous “mousetrap” which catches the reader by surprise. Unfortunately, in many of these stories the end comes rather abruptly without shedding any light. We cynically assumed that KV had run up to the limit of the word count that a prospective publisher would pay for and dropped the story then and there. Nevertheless, these stories were not found in a shoebox under his bed post mortem and we must assume that he deemed them complete before he included them with his archival material.

We gave this work a rather tepid 6.3 rating on the vaunted KV ten-point scale and the five guys then split for a hearty lunch at Acapulco Joe’s, a mere two blocks away from the Library.

On August 23, 2018, Dave Young will lead a discussion on Tom Wolfe’s 2004 Novel “I Am Charlotte Simmons” at the KV Memorial Library.  Please join us at 11AM for 90 minutes of patter and, if you so choose, a chatty lunch afterwards.

Dave Young

**********************

from: Wikipedia

While Mortals Sleep is a collection of sixteen previously unpublished short stories by Kurt Vonnegut, released on January 25, 2011. It is the third posthumously published Kurt Vonnegut book, the first being Armageddon in Retrospect, the second being Look at the Birdie.[1] The book begins with a foreword by Dave Eggers. Illustrations by Vonnegut himself appear throughout.[2]
Contents
1 “Jenny”
2 “The Epizootic”
3 “Hundred-Dollar Kisses”
4 “Guardian of the Person”
5 “With His Hand on the Throttle”
6 “Girl Pool”
7 “Ruth”
8 “While Mortals Sleep”
9 “Out, Brief Candle”
10 “Tango”
11 “Bomar”
12 “The Man Without No Kiddleys”
13 “Mr. Z”
14 “$10,000 a Year, Easy”
15 “Money Talks”
16 “The Humbugs”
*******************************
From: The Washington Times Book Review

BOOK REVIEW: ‘While Mortals Sleep’
By Claire Hopley – The Washington Times – Friday, April 1, 2011
WHILE MORTALS SLEEP: UNPUBLISHED SHORT FICTION
By Kurt Vonnegut
Delacorte Press, $27, 272 pages

Until the 1950s, and even on up into the ‘60s and early ‘70s, a young unknown could sell a short story to a national magazine such as the Saturday Evening Post or Collier’s and get $750 or even $1,000 for it. For many, the first acceptance was a hallelujah moment: Writers such as Kurt Vonnegut gave up day jobs and relied on short stories for ready cash until a breakthrough novel catapulted them onto the literary scene.

In Vonnegut’s case, it was his 1963 best-seller “Cat’s Cradle” that did the trick. After that, and especially after “Slaughterhouse-Five” in 1969, he was a literary luminary until his death in 2007. But, his fame notwithstanding, many of his early short stories have never been published. In 2009, “Look at the Birdie” partially righted that. Now, a second volume, “While Mortals Sleep” presents another 16 stories.

They are old-fashioned tales: In his introduction, Dave Eggers calls them “mousetrap stories.” Their gotcha endings, often involving a twist, invariably leave readers with a lesson. The characters might also learn something, though often they are too set in their ways to apprehend their lives afresh. The title story is a good example. It’s a Christmas tale set in a Midwestern town, where the local newspaper runs an annual competition for the house with the most inventive set of Christmas lights.
The take-no-hostages city editor, Fred Hackleman, has no patience for this or any other Christmas celebration and, as the junior reporter assigned to the job of judging them discovers, cannot be moved, by either the most elaborate display or, apparently, the most affecting. He’s a hard man, and readers have no trouble realizing that they should neither be hard nor forget the real meaning of Christmas.

This story has everything it needs to become a Christmas classic: sharply drawn stock characters, including a curmudgeon, an ingenious ex-con and an ingenue reporter; imaginative and vividly drawn scenes; and, of course, a famous author. But with the exception of the latter – Vonnegut’s name – none of these would get it published today. The characters are simplified, and even the evocative descriptions would be unlikely to swing an editor in its favor. And the ending: It is definitely too sentimental, too moralistic and, frankly, too pat to satisfy the contemporary taste for the haunting, fine-tuned, short stories that are now standard.

Other stories in this volume share similar qualities. “With His Hand on the Throttle” tells of Hotbox Harrison, a successful young owner of a construction company “insistently at the center of any gathering.” He gets his jollies from his HO-scale trains in his basement, delighted to have “this much of the universe precisely where he would have it, under his thumb.” He’s always promising to take his young wife out, but it never happens. Even when his mother launches a pre-emptive wake-up call, he turns it to his own purposes.

Unwillingness to change is often the road to disaster. In “Jenny,” a brilliant engineer designs a fridge called Jenny. It has a foam-rubber face, and it can speak and move. By taking Jenny on the road and putting her through her amazing paces, he becomes his company’s ace salesman. But his obsession with electronics has limited his life and doomed his marriage.

Implicitly, these stories are a critique of the post-World War II syndrome of a working dad consumed by his job and a neglected or harried stay-at-home mom. The logical result of this system – now somewhat changed but still thriving – is described in “The Epizootic.” A smart insurance executive puzzles over the huge number of youngish men who commit suicide, leaving their widows and children well provided for by their life insurance.
Pondering the causes of this suicide craze, he sees that the proceeds of a life insurance policy may be the very best men can offer in a world in which they are judged – and judge themselves – by how much money they earn for their families.

The sadness at the center of these stories is that they are about loneliness usually created by some form of tunnel vision that withers the heart. Living a fantasy is just as limiting, as we see in “Hundred Dollar Kisses,” in which Verne Petrie claims he’d give $100 to kiss one of the sexy girls flaunted in soft-porn magazines, despite having a wife and children at home. More affectingly, in “Out, Brief Candle,” the widowed Annie Cowper confides in a pen pal, as he does with her. Soon, she is convinced that they are made for each other, but when she travels to find him in Schenectady, N.Y., she meets only tragedy.

At the end of this bittersweet tale, readers know a lot more about the pen pal than Annie does. Indeed, Vonnegut always makes absolutely certain that readers know where they stand. His stories appeal to our better selves, generally delivering wake-up calls. To respond to them is to feel good, and that was the charm of such tales in the heyday of the magazines that published them.
Today, they seem distinctly outmoded. Nonetheless, their taut telling, satiric zing and, yes, even those tidy endings often give them power. Scholars and other fans of Vonnegut’s work will applaud their publication – though they will wish that there were some notes indicating when he wrote each one and when he drew the line drawings that accompany them so effectively.
Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

Mark Hudson, Janet Pennwell, John Hawn, Celia Latz, Dave Young, Bill Briscoe, Janet Hodgkin, Jay Carr, and Phil Watts showed up at the KV Memoral Library to discuss KV’s 1982 novel “Dead Eye Dick” on this beautiful summer day in downtown Indianapolis. John Sturman was going to lead the discussion but found something better to do in Southern California so we just winged it for ninety minutes. This is our second reading of “Dead Eye Dick.” Our first reading was in August, 2011 and Bill celebrated that occasion by bringing in some “Polka Dot Brownies” following KV’s recipe in Chapter 27. Our tummies remained empty for this outing.

Bill got us rolling with a long catalog of similarities between KV and his protagonist, Rudy Waltz. It sounded pretty good until sex raised its ugly head. Rudy was an incel who was apparently unable to consumate a sexual relationship with a female partner. KV did not appear to have that problem.

Much was made of what one reviewer called KV’s “intolerable cuteness.” His repetitive use of the opening and closing of the “peephole” to signify the beginning and end of life on earth was a little tiresome. Maybe the peephole ties into KV’s fascination with the sphincter. Other devices he used throughout were food recipes (Rudy became the family cook) which KV warns should not be tried at home and short playlets (Rudy wrote one miserable stageplay which by some coincidence had a one night stand in Manhatttan).

1982 was a rough year for KV. Never a very happy camper, he was depressed and was only two years away from attempting to do himself in with pills and alcohol. His second marriage was not going well and he probaby sensed that he had passed the peak of his creative output. That depression comes through in this dark comedy. Life is meaningless and the good and bad things that happen are more random than the result of purposeful action. The comic relief comes early when KV writes about Rudy’s father’s friendship with Hitler in Vienna before WWI. We are left to speculate how History would have unfolded if Otto Waltz had not bailed out the starving Hitler by purchasing one of his architectural studies. They maintained contact until the Anschluss in 1938 when all good German-Americans had to forget that they ever had good thoughts about that crazy Austrian.

The autobiographical touchpoints between KV and Rudy are too numerous to mention in this short piece, but family relationships drive both characters. Both sets of parents were ineffective and largely non-productive. KV’s folks were driven from their luxe life by prohibition and then the depression while Rudy’s were bankrupted by the civil suit following Rudy’s homicidal recklessness with a military weapon. Both had fathers who insisted they pursue careers in science rather than follow their inclination to become writers and both had older brothers who became successful in New York. Rudy and his brother did recoup some of the family fortune later in their lives when they sued the manufacturer of a radioactive fireplace mantel in the family home. Their mom liked to hang around the fireplace and the radiation finally killed her. Rudy and Felix used the proceeds to buy a hotel in Haiti where they apparently lived the rest of their lives. Karma meets VooDoo.

Rudy had no sister, but KV had Alice. Tall, beautiful, talented and five years older, she became his muse. All of his writing was inspired by and was for her, he said. Her death in 1958 affected him down to his roots. We talked a little about the characterization of women in his novels. They seem to come across as flat and uninteresting. He never bothers to flesh them out. So it went with Celia, the high school beauty queen from the wrong side of the tracks who married the town’s Pontiac dealer, became a heroin addict and committed suicide with a Drano cocktail.

Many of the topics KV touched on 36 years ago are still relevant today. The locus of the novel is Midland City, Ohio an upper-Appalachian hell-hole somewhere in southwestern Ohio. This is the area that has been recently worked over by J.D. Vance and Donald Ray Pollock. Opiate addiction and inbreeding were common then as they are today. Somethings don’t change.

The people of Midland City were annihilated by a neutron bomb that only bothered living organisms. The government was planning to move refugees into the undisturbed buildings. The local deplorables were invested in a conspiracy theory holding that the government had destroyed Midland City on purpose as an experiment and not by accident as had been claimed.

After some lamentation about the sad state of our struggling body politic, we were redirected by Jay to a recent book by Gregg Easterday. “It’s Better Than it Looks:  Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear.” Our nation has survived an incredibly brutal civil war, two world wars, a crippling depression, numerous epidemics and health scares, so perhaps the incivilities forced upon us by the media and our politicians are not so bad, after all.

We gave this somewhat sad novel an 8.2 rating on the vaunted KV 10.0 Scale. The last time we tackled this book (in August 2011) it only rated a 6.75 so we concluded that KV’s novels read better the second time around.

I have attached below a brief plot summary from Wikipedia and also a rather lengthy contemporaneous book review from the New York Times by Benjamin Demotte, a university teacher who attempts to give this work some perspective and to explain why KV has such an appeal to young readers and to those who re-read him later in life.

Bill and I couldn’t convince anyone else to lunch with us so we repaired to that 100 year old bar The Workingman’s Friend, 234 N. Belmont, in downtown Haughville for their famous double cheeseburger and pork tenderloin sandwiches.

We will next meet at 11AM on Thursday July 26, 2018, when Janet Pennwell will lead us through KV’s posthumous (2011) collection of sixteen short stories “While Mortals Sleep.”
Come join us at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.

Dave Young

Plot Summary from Wikipedia:

The novel’s main character, Rudy Waltz, nicknamed Deadeye Dick, commits accidental manslaughter as a child (he kills a pregnant woman who was vacuuming) and lives his whole life feeling guilty and seeking forgiveness for it. He was so traumatized by the events directly after the woman’s death that he lives life as an asexual “neuter,” neither homosexual nor heterosexual. He tells the story of his life as a middle-aged man expatriate in Haiti, which symbolizes New York City, until the end, when the stream of time of the story catches up with him. At this point, he confronts an event that has been suggested and referred to throughout the novel. The generic Midwestern town of Midland City, Ohio (also the setting of Breakfast of Champions) in which Rudy was raised is virtually destroyed by a neutron bomb. At the ending of the book, it appears that Rudy, while he may not have fully come to terms with his actions, has at least come to live with them. In addition, the ending is where Vonnegut provides his most direct commentary on society, although there are hints here and there throughout the novel.

Another key theme throughout the book is the relationship between Waltz and his parents. Vonnegut focuses on connecting the actions and attitudes of parents to the ensuing actions and attitudes of the offspring, in this case, Rudy Waltz. Rudy writes a play, based on events in the life of his father’s former best friend. In the latter half of the book some scenes are described as theater scripts. ************end**********

NYT BOOKS
Deadeye Dick
Reviewed BENJAMIN DeMOTT, OCT. 17, 1982

”DEADEYE DICK” is the life story, told by himself, of one Rudolph Waltz, born in Midland City, Ohio, in 1932 and now residing in Portau-Prince, Haiti, where he’s the chef and co-owner (with his older brother) of a well-known hotel. Like many other books from the pen that brought us ”Jailbird,” ”Slapstick” and ”Welcome to the Monkey House,” it’s a riot of randomness. At age 12 young Rudy, schoolboy, fires off an unaimed round from a rifle belonging to his father’s gun collection and accidentally kills a pregnant woman named Eloise Metzger, who’s vacuuming her living room several blocks away when hit. Jailed for the deed, both Rudy and his eccentric father are viciously beaten by the police. (The cops bathe Rudy in ink and display him in a cage to selected visitors, who are encouraged to punch him out a little: ”I was regional theater.”) Lawsuits from the bereaved Mr. Metzger ruin the Waltz family financially (Rudy’s father is heir to a drugstore chain fortune), and Midland Cityites bestow a mocking nickname on Rudy – the nickname that gives this work its title.
Act Two: Released from prison into adolescence and early manhood, Rudy confronts unique problems of career choice. He himself likes to cook, but his high school English teacher believes Rudy is a literary genius and pushes him to become a professional writer. Rudy’s farout father, Otto, is opposed. Blaming his own parents for forcing him into a career in the arts he didn’t want and heedless of the possibility that his son might want such a career, Otto insists that Rudy ignore his English teacher and take up business. (Wisdom isn’t Otto’s suit: Vain of his gifts as a gun safety instructor, he regularly boasted – before the shooting accident – that ”my boys will never have a shooting accident . . . because their respect for weapons has become a part of their nervous systems.”) Rudy earns a degree in pharmacology at Ohio State and cooks for his parents at home (this book includes recipes). Then Rudy works at night at Schramm’s Drugstore and completes a play in the daytime that wins a foundation prize and flops on Broadway. (A defect of the play is that a key character repeats the line ”Nobody dies in Shangri-La” 17 times.)
Comes midlife. Rudy relocates to Haiti, where he cooks and has a circle of intimates that includes his brother and a Haitian adept at raising the dead. More recipes are presented, but disasters keep looming. An Ohio blizzard kills Rudy’s parents. An explosion, possibly accidental, of a neutron bomb destroys the population of his hometown. (People think of fencing the bomb site and converting it into a refugee center.) Rudy observes, ”We are still in the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages – they haven’t ended yet.” Fini.
IN my estimate ”Deadeye Dick” is a cut above ”Jailbird,” which I found overly dependent on stale Watergate material and perhaps a cut below this author’s best performances, such as ”Slaughterhouse-Five.” The account of Midland City after the neutron bomb explosion is strongly imagined (at the Holiday Inn all guests have expired, all appliances are Go – phones, television sets, ice-cube makers, the rest). So too is the portrait of the town’s Police Headquarters in the grip of brutal moral outrage. (I especially liked a quiet paragraph in which Rudy remembers Patrolman Squires, right-thinking community protector, working to persuade the terrified, murderous 12-year-old to get another gun and kill himself.) On the other hand, the satirical thrusts struck me as less telling than the splendid assault on altruistic bigots in ”Mother Night,” and no moment of comic invention is as fully realized as the death of the computer in ”Player Piano.”
What will chiefly matter to Vonnegut fans, though, is that the book’s tone, content, arrangements and assumptions nowhere diverge far from this writer’s norms. This means, first, that the hero is sweet and hapless and bears a silly-sounding name. It means that strange folk abound – among them a longtime loyal friend of Hitler’s who is fond of dressing up in ”the scarlet-and-silver uniform of a major in the Hungarian Life Guard, complete with sable busby and panther skin”; an Ohio farmer who, after reading James Hilton’s ”Lost Horizon,” takes off for keeps to Katmandu; an NBC president who, after making the ten-best-dressed-men’s list, has his suits vandalized (hundreds of buttons sliced off) by one of his estranged wives, and an Oberlin graduate who dies at 77, victim of a radioactive mantelpiece.

It means, in addition, that respect for The Authorities is held to a minimum. The initial targets in ”Deadeye Dick,” obviously, are opinionated parents (Rudy’s dad is a nitwit about everything from the Third Reich to how to entertain children) and violence-prone police. But other kinds of lawgiving self-inflaters also come in for review – drug corporation executives who create an age of ”pharmaceutical buffoonery” in the name of progress, Nuclear Regulatory honchos to whom catastrophe teaches only a single lesson (”the most important thing (is) that nobody panic”), colonialists for whom history doesn’t exist. (”It’s a widely accepted principle . . . that you can claim a piece of land which has been inhabited for tens of thousands of years, if only you will repeat this mantra endlessly: ‘We discovered it, we discovered it, we discovered it.’ ”)
The continuity with the author’s past also means that the new Vonnegutisms introduced here harmonize well with those met in earlier books. In ”Deadeye Dick” one isn’t born, one has one’s peephole opened; one doesn’t die, one has one’s peephole closed, after which one becomes what one was before – ”a wisp of undifferentiated nothingness.” (People who detest Vonnegut’s stylistic special effects – ”So it goes” in ”Slaughterhouse-Five” is probably his best-known tag phrase – find them intolerably cute; people less finicky are charmed by the unique quality of resignation they hear in them, and that quality is present in the wisp and peephole routines.)
And, more important than any of this, the grand old Vonnegutian comedy of causelessness still holds center stage. Traditional novelists and traditional people inhabit a world wherein things happen for reasons; they’re forever connecting threads, limning webs of influence and interdependency, shading and lighting, so that in the end the why of this or that momentous event or feeling will blaze across the mind’s sky – AHHhhhh – marvelously incontestable and vivid. (Absurdist novelists abolish feelings altogether.) But Vonnegut lives in a world scrubbed clean of reasons. Why does the child of a gun safety specialist, using a rifle from his father’s collection, emerge as a double murderer? A tough question. Why do human beings take satisfaction in creating a neutron bomb that destroys ”only” human beings, not their accouterments? Another toughie. Why should grief-struck Rudy Waltz, headed for a presumably moving moment at his parents’ graveside, allow his train of thought to light on a certain cookie, whereupon – nod to Proust? – instead of grief we’re provided with a recipe for almond macaroons?
DON’T ask. And don’t mutter, either, about paradox, irony or absurd, incongruous juxtaposition. Such mutterings aren’t apposite. Irony presupposes the existence, somewhere, of a straight road out of irony, and that’s not on Vonnegut’s map. Granted, Rudy Waltz himself buzzes with questions voiced and unvoiced. How come I was 50, he asks, before I inquired into the fates of the surviving members of the Metzger family? Why is it that the surviving Metzger children are named for Eugene Debs and Jane Addams? Why are names funny? How come E. D. Metzger ends up in Greece owning several tankers flying the Liberian flag? How come J. A. Metzger is ”living with a refugee Czech playwright on Molokai, in the Hawaiian Islands, where she (owns) a ranch and (is) raising Arabian horses”? How come the lawyer who sued the Waltzes after the Metzger shooting has a son who is a ”welder in Alaska (after flunking) out of Harvard Law School?” Sentence on sentence, paragraph on paragraph, chapter on chapter, so it goes: a tissue of unanswerables.

But never mind: The good reader knows how to cope. The good reader knows that the mark of a nerd is precisely Rudy Waltz’s faith in the imminence of sound answers. The good reader is aware that the allegedly solid, cause-and-effect, ask-a-good-question-get-a-good-answer world is, in fact, pure scam. Why should Walter F. Starbuck in ”Jailbird,” White House Adviser on Youth Affairs and admirer of the Sermon on the Mount, allow a trunk full of illegal campaign contributions to be hidden in his cellar office? Why can’t Kilgore Trout – in ”God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” and other Vonnegut works – find a better job than that of a clerk at a green stamp redemption center? Why level a whole living city (”Slaughterhouse-Five”) in the name of Victory?
It’s nerd-ism to ask and nerd-ism to answer; the best course is simply to kick the Q. & A. habit. As everybody knows, Vonnegut has an immense following among the young. ”Mr. Rosewater,” about a bibulous, do-gooding moneybags, was a cult book in the 60’s; memory tells me that many undergraduates knew ”Slaughterhouse-Five” and ”The Sirens of Titan” before the author’s oeuvre was mass marketed in paperback in the early 70’s; ”Jailbird” has sold millions. Twice while I was reading ”Deadeye Dick,” on a late summer airplane, two unrelated, attractive and intelligent strangers in their early 20’s, noticing the author’s name on the cover of the bound galleys, broke in to ask how the book was and to say that Kurt Vonnegut was their favorite author. The secret of this following, according to the standard judgment, lies in the author’s hostility to authority. I disagree. In my opinion the secret lies in a whole congeries of attitudes toward logical explanation – in Vonnegut’s relaxed, contagious, oddly untendentious presentation of doubt that any of us really can locate the causes of which we’re the results.
It takes time on this earth, after all, to live into (that is, to become deluded by and utterly dependent on) a sense that relations are endless, a sense that Step A necessarily leads to Step B, a sense that Divinity, History, The Social Order, and the Terms of Toilet Training called one forth, in one’s 50’s, to be, say, a tenured book-chatterer in the western part of America’s Bay State. The sense of inevitability, in short, is a function of the loss of muscle tone. (For updated evidence of this I’d refer skeptics – if I could do it without violating my fellow passengers’ privacy – to those conversations with the flying Vonnegutians. As our talk moved along from books to school to jobs, what I heard time and again was an easy humorous certainty that all things could be utterly otherwise. Q. Gee, how’d you happen to get into package engineering? A. Well . . . (Chuckle) I started out pre-med and then, etc.)
THE voice of Vonnegut fans, in my experience (in the classroom as well as on the road), tends to be that of people whose life stories to this moment strike the tellers themselves as having no more gravity or resonance than a choice of complimentary beverage. (I’ll have apple juice, thank you.) The young love Vonnegut because he’s in closer touch than most of us with the thinness of the membrane, the insubstantiality of the fabric. He knows what it’s like to search for and fail to find the connective tissue; he’s capable of being simultaneously superior to Rudy Waltz yet tender and inward with the poor soul’s puzzlement.
Vonnegut can also be, of course, something rather less interesting than this. Often the comic poet of weightlessness, the magician who freshens, for a time, in grown-ups, knowledge of the insides of unsettledness, dwindles into a mere fabricator of one-liners. (”I will explain the main symbols in this book,” says the author in a preface and adds, deadpan: ”Haiti is New York City where I live now.”) Often toward the end of his tales he forgets he’s a mystery-multiplier and tries his hand at Explaining All (witness the Dark Ages business at the close of ”Deadeye Dick”). I understand why some critics find Vonnegut vexingly soft on both the cartooning and preaching sides of his nature.
But I know that on some days this very odd writer is good medicine, whatever one’s age: on the day when, for instance, you hear that the shelling hasn’t stopped, or that the liveliest young mind in your acquaintance can’t find work, or that it’s been decided, in the newspapers, that the operations mutilating a loved one are no longer regarded as correct procedures. One reason for this is that Vonnegut’s inexplicables are admirably plain, homely, abundant, up front; there’s no epistemological complication, few philosophical conundrums, just the improbable mess of any probable human week. And the other reason is that there’s no cruelty in the man. He is, evidently, playing; take away the ever-present question (namely, How on earth can you explain this?) and his activities might not be easily distinguishable from those of a child setting up and batting down toy soldiers on a rug. But gloating and meanness are excluded from the game, and the observing eyes are sad, humorous, kind.
I predict that many Vonnegutians will grow up and away from their favorite author. I also predict that, a decade or two after they do so, many will grow back. The old rule applies: As soon as you put on weight on this earth, you discover it makes a kind of sense to lose it.
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