A Man Without A Country, by Kurt Vonnegut

reviewed by
Erik Grayson

When Kurt Vonnegut finally finished Timequake one decade ago, the exasperated writer claimed that he would never write another book. Technically, he still hasn’t. In 1999’s Bagombo Snuff Box, Vonnegut merely collected several short stories he’d previously written and in 2001’s God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, he simply published a few short pieces he’d performed on a New York City public radio station. Like its two most recent predecessors, A Man Without A Country is a collection of largely previously-published work, the vast majority of which appeared in the pages of the alternative newsmagazine In These Times between 2003 and 2005.

Vonnegut, currently a chain-smoking octogenarian, secured a place for himself in the canon of postmodern American literature by fearlessly tackling such subjects as aging, death, war, mental illness, existentialism, and humanism. From his concern with the dehumanizing mechanization of American society in Player Piano to his examination of war and mass destruction in Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut has never failed to share his opinions on sensitive and important topics. With unflinching honesty, Vonnegut has swept away the fanciful illusions (“foma,” to the adherents of the author’s fictional Bokononist faith in Cat’s Cradle) under whose umbrage we hide from the world’s uncomfortable realities in an effort to show us the necessity of his own radically sane humanism. Not unlike Eliot Rosewater in God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, Vonnegut’s voice has traditionally been a gentle one as he has guided us through worlds devoid of free will, full of violence, and populated by lunatics only to reveal to us, in the end, that these alien places are, in fact, just outside our living room windows.

Although his fictional output has always taken the spotlight, Vonnegut’s essays have regularly appeared in the pages of magazines throughout his career. Characterized by the same bold thematic exploration as his novels and short stories, Vonnegut’s non-fiction (largely collected in Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons) has always sought to examine the most pressing of contemporary issues from the perspective of a liberal freethinker. Not surprisingly, Vonnegut’s tone throughout A Man Without A Country is consistent with that of the left-leaning publication in which many of the sketches originally appeared. Although he touches upon such diverse subjects as American history, science, the craft of fiction, and the paramount importance of creative work in maintaining what little happiness there is in the world, the topic around which A Man Without A Country seems to revolve is contemporary politics. Unfortunately, whereas Vonnegut’s insights about humor, humanism, aging, and art are touchingly tender, his political ideas tend to fall flat and sound immature. Indeed, while Vonnegut devotes many pages to criticizing George W. Bush as President, he adds next to nothing to our collective perception of the current political milieu in the United States.

Vonnegut pulls the reader along as he tramps down all the well-trod liberal critiques of the contemporary American political stage: Fox News is a punch line, “the three most powerful men on the planet [are] named Bush, Dick, and Colon,” Americans are addicted to oil, and the war in Iraq is not a just war (40). Offering nothing beyond the same jokes one might find in the monologues preceding late-night talk shows, Vonnegut’s jokes almost elicit the same forced canned laughter used to disguise a studio audience’s lackluster response to a gag which bombed during taping.

Of course, given the frequency of President Bush’s political faux pas—his recent use of the term “Islamic fascist” in place of “militant Islamic fundamentalist” when describing the suspects in August’s London airport scare, for instance, being only the latest in a long string of poorly-orchestrated public maneuvers—views such as Vonnegut’s are anything but unjustified. This, however, is hardly the point. Kurt Vonnegut, for better or for worse, has established himself as one of America’s most strikingly original novelists, one whose bravely rational voice sounds both zany and utterly fresh in today’s loony world. As a result, Vonnegut’s readers expect more from the author of Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle than the simple repetition of criticisms already made countless times before by commentators considerably less insightful than he. Had his language not been so similar to that of his critical predecessors and had his comments on George W. Bush been as thoughtfully-delivered as those he shares regarding Karl Marx’s oft-quoted “religion is the opiate of the masses” as a casual truism rather than a strict dictum, for instance, there would be reason to praise Vonnegut’s political message (12).

On the other hand, I suppose, one might effectively make a case for Vonnegut’s use of potshots and Borscht-Belt zingers as evidence of George Bush’s utter failure as a leader, a figurehead, and a spokesperson. The argument, I imagine, would be that even Kurt Vonnegut—a man never at a loss for words—cannot dignify the man with a more thoughtful critique. I am not, however, a Vonnegut apologist and cannot help but feel disappointed by the author’s simple addition of his voice to an already dense chorus. For me, A Man Without A Country would be stronger if Vonnegut stuck to his otherwise successful mélange of endearingly sardonic one-liners, fascinating and fresh perspectives on historical events, and humorously sensitive autobiographical sketches without the shooting-fish-in-a-barrel Bush-bashing. It strikes me that, when one writes in a preaching-to-the-choir tone, he or she fails to communicate with those people most in need of proselytizing. Having already heard that George Bush, Jr. is a recovering alcoholic whose famous lineage enabled him to party his way through an Ivy League school and into government from innumerable sources, we do not need Kurt Vonnegut to tell us the same thing. We need Kurt Vonnegut to tell us the things that only Kurt Vonnegut can express.

Fortunately, A Man Without A Country is not limited to the author’s trite—though impassioned—political commentary. The collection opens with Vonnegut’s earliest memories of joke-telling. As the youngest child, he tells us, humor enabled him “to break into an adult conversation” (2). Humor, Vonnegut goes on to say, helped ease the heavy hearts suffering through the Great Depression just as it helped him and his fellow prisoners of war survive the firebombing of Dresden. Identifying laughter as the cathartic release humans need to overcome tragedy and fear, Vonnegut differentiates between the safe, “superficial sort of laughter” Bob Hope induced and the deep belly-laughs inspired by Laurel and Hardy (4). Whereas the former made a living “never mentioning anything troubling,” the latter duo embodied terrible tragedy: they were “too sweet to survive in this world…[t]hey could so easily be killed” (4). Ultimately, it is the union of genuine laughter and terrible tragedy that interests Vonnegut most in A Man Without A Country and yields his most insightful writing.

In fact, by the time Vonnegut explicitly informs us that, for him, “humor doesn’t work anymore” as “a way of holding off how awful life can be,” we have already begun to sense that Vonnegut’s real message—what was behind the anti-Bush ranting, too—was simply to notice happiness on those rare occasions it crept through all the pollution, hatred, ignorance, and terror slowly killing our planet (128).

Once we recognize that Vonnegut’s bitterness is less the ranting of a cantankerous old man than the pleading of a kindly grandfather for his descendents to reconcile their feuds and build friendships before he takes his leave of them, we’re able to enjoy A Man Without A Country; the didactic, occasionally self-important tone retreats, belying Vonnegut’s empathy, compassion and concern. Kurt Vonnegut fears that he can no longer be funny because the world is just too horrible a place for humans to live. He laments the loss of his close friends who have passed away. He worries about humans destroying a life-supporting planet through war and the use of fossil fuels. He’s saddened by greedy psychopaths assuming more and more positions of power. He’s upset that creative and imaginative activity has been replaced by mass entertainment. In other words, Kurt Vonnegut feels bad for us; he simply wants us to live in and for a better world.

Yet, despite the brooding cynicism, acerbic criticism, and sense of entropy Vonnegut’s book exudes, the author still manages to make his readers smile. He may be preaching to the converted, but he does so to make those people he agrees with feel less alone in their convictions. Taking cues from humanist friends and family members, socialist leaders, and medical idealists, Vonnegut tries to show us how life ought to be lived to those of us likely to be living long after the author ceases to do so. In a series of miniature portraits appearing intermittently throughout the text, Vonnegut presents the many “saints” in whose footsteps the author wishes more people would follow. The first saint Vonnegut places before us, a Harvard-educated socialist named Powers Hapgood, gave up his inherited fortune to better the lives of the working poor. When a judge presiding over a minor picketing case in which Hapgood played a role asked the man why, given the advantages he’d had in life, he chose to live in poverty and among uneducated laborers, Hapgood responded: “Why, because of the Sermon on the Mount, sir” (14). Heeding Christ’s advice, for Vonnegut, amounts to sainthood and makes for a better world.

Elsewhere, Vonnegut describes the plight of his hero, a Hungarian obstetrician named Ignaz Semmelwies. Semmelweis, Vonnegut tells us, single-handedly changed the way doctors regarded personal hygiene when delivering babies. Despite rousing the ire of his colleagues, Semmelweis insisted that his fellow doctors wash their hands prior to delivering a child. Immediately, the rate of women dying of childbed fever plummeted from one-in-ten to practically zero. For Vonnegut, the fact that Semmelweis persisted in implementing hygienic standards despite the fact that his colleagues ostracized him for doing so made the doctor a saint. The honorable self-sacrifice exhibited by Semmelweis, Vonnegut informs us, is necessary to combat the selfish avarice of those people running the world today.

Ultimately, Vonnegut cannot express precisely what he hopes to convey with A Man Without A Country. Instead, it is Vonnegut’s son, a pediatrician, who puts into words the mentality Jesus Christ and Ignaz Semmelweis embody: “we are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is” (66). It is humanism, then, that Vonnegut advocates in the end.

The message may not be profound, but it need not be. What Vonnegut does with A Man Without A Country is simply reaffirm what he has been writing for years: wisdom lies in common sense and basic human decency, but human beings keep neglecting to pursue it. For the Vonnegut fan, then, A Man Without A Country is exactly what they have come to expect of the author: silly hand-drawn pictures, deceptively simple prose, and a whole lot of kindness guised in wit.

 

Erik Grayson is editor of Stirrings Still: The International Journal of Existential Literature.