Jailbird is not what you’d expect from Kurt Vonnegut’s fertile imagination.
Jailbird is a fictional memoir combining a few oddball characters with a raft of real characters who commit immoral and criminal acts in public places.
Jailbird’s fictional narrator, Walter F. Starbuck, can do nothing right, even when he follows good advice.
The son of immigrant employees of a millionaire industrialist who sends him to Harvard, Walter holds a federal job until he inadvertently betrays a friend and is fired.
Walter’s wife to support him.
Walter finally gets work again in the Nixon administration, where he gets caught in the Watergate scandal and goes to jail.
Released in 1977, he goes to New York where he unlawfully fails to reveal a will and soon is on his way back to jail.
Vonnegut cannot avoid including a few laugh-out-loud wise cracks and off-beat perspectives on ordinary life, but on the whole Jailbird is a dark novel.
Vonnegut uses the fictional Walter to examine the real history of labor relations in the U.S., the Sacco and Vanzatti trial, the McCarthy investigations of subversive elements, and the unequal distribution of wealth in America.
Vonnegut’s Walter, when asked why he concerns himself with the working class responds, “Why? The Sermon on the Mount, sir.”
As he did in Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut begins Slapstick: or Lonesome No More with a personal reference.
Vonnegut tells of flying with his brother to their uncle’s funeral and missing their sister who died from cancer two days after her husband died in a accident, leaving four children to be brought up by family members.
That, and seeing a performance of Tosca, starts him imagining a novel in the spirit of Laurel and Hardy who “did their best with every test.”
Slapstick is a series of loosely connected episodes about Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, M.D., age 100, currently one of three inhabitants of the Empire State Building (most other residents of Manhattan have been killed by plague) and former president of the United States.
Swain won the Presidency with the slogan “Lonesome No More” and instituted a program in which Americans were assigned to families identifiable by middle names consisting of a noun and a number.
Vonnegut’s absurd characters are no more real than a Laurel and Hardy sketch, but realism is not his point.
His characters are parables, zany to get your attention and direct it to a message:
“Human beings need all the relatives they can get—as possible donors or receivers not necessarily of love, but of common decency.”
Breakfast of Champions has nothing to do with breakfast or champions. It has a lot to do with what it means to be human. More precisely, it has to do with what it means to be Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., a human and a writer.
For his fiftieth birthday Vonnegut decided to clear his head of all the junk that was in it, including setting free the characters in his previous novels.
Discussing his plot with readers and appearing in his own book have been done before but Vonnegut makes them integral to his story. Vonnegut’s drawings have that same sense of belonging.
Writing in the first person, Vonnegut tells only one of his characters of his new freedom: Kilgore Trout, a science-fiction writer whose voluminous writings had been published, with no remuneration to him, wrapped around pornographic photographs.
The other characters from in Breakfast don’t know they have been freed or that they were once characters. That’s because humans other than Kilgore Trout are really just machines.
If this sounds nonsensical, maybe it is. But if it’s nonsense, what accounts for the lack of humanity people exhibit?
I can’t decide if Breakfast is brilliant or just quirky, but I’ll definitely read it again.
Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
with drawings by the author
Delaworte Press/Seymour Lawrence, Book Club ed. 304 p.
1973 bestseller #3. My grade: B