Monday, February 23, 2009

Book Report, "A Man Without a Country" by Kurt Vonnegut

Had Kurt Vonnegut died in Nov. 2008 his literary goodbye,"A Man Without a Country"might have been brighter.

Maybe the sea change in American politics was already affecting Vonnegut when he passed on April 11, 2007, but this book, his last sigh, had been published in 2005.

That means it would have been written the year before, an annus horribilis, marked by the American peoples' unfortunate validation of George W. Bush's presidency.

So Vonnegut, an avowed socialist, was pretty soured on the United States. And that resulted in his swan song being a mixture of a trademark whimsy and heavy doses of dead seriousness.

For the book-loving, Vonnegut unpacked this chestnut:

Do you realize that all great literature -- "Moby Dick," "Huckleberry Finn," "A Farewell to Arms," "The Scarlet Letter," "The Red Badge of Courage," "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," "The Bible," and "The Charge of the Light Brigade," -- are all about what a bummer it is to be a human being? (Isn't it such a relief to have somebody say that?)

Maybe it's a relief if you've lived well and are on the way out, but if a good stretch of road is still in front of you, not so much.

In "Man Without..." the famed writer riffed often on the oil problem, our national addiction, and the increasingly desperate decisions being made by the country's leaders to placate that addiction.

Evolution can go to hell as far as I'm concerned. What a mistake we are. We have mortally wounded this sweet life-supporting planet -- and the only one in the whole Milky Way -- with a century of transportation whoopee.

But, as can be seen from this quote's opening beats, oil addiction is but a symptom. It's the human race that rots.

Why was Vonnegut a man without a country? Here's a decent stretch, long in inches, but short in bandwidth, wherein he lays out his case in the writerly way:

Loaded pistols are good for everyone except inmates in prisons or lunatic asylums.
That's correct.
Millions spent on public health are inflationary.
That's correct.
Billions spent on weapons will bring inflation down.
That's correct.
Dictatorships to the right are much closer to American ideals than dictatorships to the left.
That's correct.
The more hydrogen bomb warheads we have, all set to go off at a moment's notice, the safer humanity is and the better of the world will be that our grandchildren inherit.
That's correct.
Industrial wastes, and especially those that radioactive, hardly ever hurt anybody, so everybody should shut up about them.
That's correct.
Industries should be allowed to do whatever they want to do: Bribe, wreck the environment just a little, fix prices, screw dumb customers, put a stop to competition, and raid the Treasury when they go broke.
That's correct.
That's free enterprise.
And that's correct.
The poor have done something very wrong or they wouldn't be poor, so their children should pay the consequences.
That's correct.
The United States of America cannot be expected to look after its own people.
That's correct.
The free market will do that.
That's correct.
The free market is an automatic system of justice.
That's correct.
I'm kidding.

Which reminds us of how good writers communicate deep concepts with simplicity and economy.

Vonnegut was dead-set against the war in Iraq. His chief grievance was the unprovoked nature of the military action and he drafted a historical parallel with the U.S. invasion of Mexico in the 19th Century.

More than a decade before his Gettysburg Address, back in 1848, when Lincoln was only a Congressman, he was heartbroken and humiliated by our war on Mexico, which had never attacked us. James Polk was the person Representative Lincoln had in mind when he said what he said. Abraham Lincoln said of Polk, his president, his armed forces' commander-in-chief:

Trusting to escape scrutiny, by fixing the public gaze upon the exceeding brightness of military glory - that attractive rainbow, that rises in showers of blood - that serpent's eyes, that charms to destroy - he plunged into war.

Holy shit! And I thought I was a writer!

We told you there was whimsy melded into book's gloomy view.

One chapter revisits an old Vonnegut favorite about the simplicity of successful story structure, but then goes a step further wherein he demonstrates why "Shakespeare was as poor a storyteller as any Arapaho," whose true virtue was that he told the truth in a world where the truth is in short supply.

A lifetime of literary creation and consumption led our subject to crown poet Carl Sandburg a personal favorite, and Ambrose Bierce's "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," as a "flawless example of American genius like, 'Sophisticated Lady' by Duke Ellington or the Franklin stove."

He warns writers off using semi-colons, "transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing." And then, after using one, remarks, "The point is: Rules only take us so far, even good rules."

"Man Without a Country" plugs Eugene Debs and plies the sad story of Ignaz Semmelweis.

This gentleman convinced his unbelieving fellow doctors that leaving the morgue after doing autopsies to perform surgery on live patients, without washing their hands first, was causing a lot of death.

It is a story of truth spurned and suicide and one of the reasons, along with Vonnegut's presence at the firebombing of Dresden, he lost hope in the human race.

Like my distinct betters Einstein and Twain, I now give up on people, too. I am a veteran of the Second World War and I have to say this is not the first time I have surrendered to a pitiless war machine.

My last words? "Life is no way to treat an animal, not even a mouse."

Perhaps it was the responsibility of Vonnegut's editor to loyally assist in the assaying of a downer document. We expect these things from older people. Their pessimism completes the arc of our devolutionary intellectual development.

But we also expect wisdom from a life lived well and fully. So highwayscribery is going to step in and close this report with something that appeared at the beginning of the book and, for that reason, may have been lost to those who closed "A Man Without a Country,' in gloom.

It is advice with which highwayscribery agrees, often propounds to novice writers, and finds worthy of such a fine man and artist:

If you want to hurt your parents, and you don't have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I'm not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created to something.

No comments: