College Quarterly
Winter 2006 - Volume 9 Number 1
Reviews A Man without a Country
Kurt Vonnegut
New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

For a long time, I have wanted to say something nice in print (or in pixels) about my friend Kurt Vonnegut. This may be my last chance. He has declared that A Man without a Country will be his last book. He has said that before, of course, but this time he might mean it. For a while, he allowed himself to be called Kurt Vonnegut Jr. He is now in his eighty-fourth year and still smoking like a chimney. Pall Mall cigarettes. No filters. He coughs some now. No need for “Jr.” Maybe no more books.

For a long time, some very famous people have said nice things about Kurt Vonnegut. Other very famous people have said things that made him feel “like something the cat drug in.” His work is highly contested.” Some folks like him; others don’t. Gore Vidal, for example, once called him the worst writer in America. The New York Review thinks his work is piffle. I have great respect for Gore Vidal as a writer and a critic. I am a long-time subscriber to what used to be known as The New York Review of Books (but which is either trying to sound less “bookish” or to expand its turf—I am unsure which). In any case, I think they have both been ridiculously misguided.

If this new book is to be believed, Kurt Vonnegut is sadder now that he has been before (except, of course, when he was actually suicidal). He is also closer to being bitter. It’s not that he is more pessimistic. Most of his published work has been pretty pessimistic, at least by American standards; but, this time, it is different. He was always good at gallows humour. His funniest novel, in my opinion, was Cat’s Cradle. It was about the end of the world. Some punch line. This book is not as hilarious.

Back in the days when we used the word “automation” a lot, Kurt Vonnegut wrote a novel, Player Piano, about how machines destroyed people’s jobs and therefore their lives. He made a direct connection between the fate of industrial employees and the American Indians who perished at the end of the 19th century, believing in a millenarian movement focused on the Ghost Dance. The connection is irrefutable.

Kurt Vonnegut’s most spectacularly successful novel, Slaughterhouse Five, was about the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany. He had seen it first hand as an American prisoner of war. People, he said, went “sizzle and pop” in Dresden and in Hiroshima as well. He said he was the only person to do well out of Dresden. His novels and film rights made him a few dollars for every corpse incinerated there. I am happy that things did not go badly for him; if the British and American bombs had been just slightly more effective, I would never have had the chance to be his friend.

Dresden “resonates” with me. I got to be a friend of a child who fled Dresden in 1938. He was a Jew. His name was Henry Kariel. He got out at the age of fourteen. I got to study political theory with him in 1968. He was a matchless teacher. I got to study literature with Kurt Vonnegut in 1988. He was an engaging performer. How nice! Years ending in “8”.

I was introduced to Kurt Vonnegut’s writing by an American friend, an ex-military man who went on to become something of a spiritual quester and has since retired from a career as a family counselor in Vermont. He gave me Cat’s Cradle to read. I laughed and laughed all the way to the end of life on Earth.

I liked some of Kurt Vonnegut’s other novels, but I gave in to the arrogance of youth. I got a little bored. I came to believe that Vonnegut was something of a “one-trick-pony.” He had some amusing things to say about human stupidity and malice. Then, I thought, he kept saying pretty much the same thing in novel after novel. I thought I didn’t have to read him any more. I “got it.”

Then, quite by accident, I picked up an article he had written for Harper’s magazine back in 1972, when Richard Nixon was nominated for a second term as the US president. It was entitled “In a Manner that Must Shame God Himself.” It wasn’t very funny.

Kurt Vonnegut talked about the essential fraudulence of American politics and its laughable “two-party” system. The Americans, he said, had two “real” political parties, the Winners and the Losers, and they also had two “imaginary” parties, the Republicans and the Democrats. Both the imaginary parties were controlled by Winners. So, in every election, this much was certain: Winners would win. The system is now fabulously transparent. In the last election, US voters got to choose between two members of Yale University’s Skull and Bones society. In the same article, Kurt Vonnegut also talked about one of my personal saints, “the 1960s radical” Abbie Hoffmann. He spoke of dignified Indians who risked becoming cruel jokes because they were too solemn to be taken seriously when they exercised their American right to petition for the redress of grievances among members of the Republican Party on a spree. He discussed the coming doctrine of the “Divine Right of Presidents.” He certainly was prescient.

Subsequently, he cranked out three books of importance that were not novels or collections of short stories. They had these titles: Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons (1974), Palm Sunday (1981) and Fates Worse than Death (1991). They were “autobiographical collages” containing magazine articles, speeches, and reflections on this and that. One even contained the text of a mass that he wrote for a Christian church (St. John the Devine in New York City), not bad for a “freethinker.”

A Man without a Country is in this style. It contains “mini-memoirs.” It is a disappointment for me because it contains a lot of stuff that is being recycled, sometimes almost word for word. It may easily wind up being his best selling book. It is certainly getting a lot of advertising. Every morning, when I open up my e-version of the New York Times, I am urged to buy it before I get to the first headline.

Others will not be disappointed, especially if they are unfamiliar with Kurt Vonnegut, or know him only through his novels. There is much wisdom in the book. There are lots of hearty laughs. It is high comic tragedy.

George Grant once said that the most profound alienation people can experience is alienation from their own countries. It is a terrible thing when one’s own culture can no longer claim one’s loyalty. When that happens, people sometimes go into exile. They can physically move to another country and live life as an “expatriate,” which is seldom satisfying. They can also become internal, psychological exiles and isolate themselves as hermits or within a small circle of friends, which are seldom satisfying. They can commit suicide.

The reason Grant thought that being without a country was so terrible is that he thought the quest for goodness began with a love of one’s own … family, friends, vocation and culture. To achieve anything like happiness, it was important to be grounded and to build upon that ground. Vonnegut thinks so too. He is a big fan of what he (following anthropologist Robert Redfield) calls a “folk society.” This is a relatively small group of people who share basic ideas and customs and who are connected to some identifiable piece of real estate. In a folk society, people are protected from the chief ill of modern society, which is loneliness (Marx would call it alienation).

The United States of America has squandered Kurt Vonnegut’s love and loyalty. Like James Dean, he comes from Indiana. He is a rebel with a cause. His cause has been to restore a sense of loyalty to the good. The US has driven him to the frontier, the border, the first steps beyond the pale. The whole of the modern world has as well. Globalization threatens to make us all exiles of one sort or another.

What, in particular, has left Kurt Vonnegut so bereft?

He tells us:

“I myself feel that our country, for whose Constitution I fought in a just war, might as well have been invaded by Martians and body snatchers. Sometimes I wish it had been. What has happened instead is that it was taken over by means of the sleaziest, low-comedy, Keystone Cops-style coup d’état imaginable.

“I was once asked if I had any ideas for a really scary reality TV show. I have one reality show that would really make your hair stand on end: ‘C-students from Yale.’

“George W. Bush has gathered around him upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography, plus not-so-closeted white supremacists aka Christians, and, plus, most frighteningly, psychopathic personalities, or PPs, the medical term for smart, personable people who have no consciences.”

That, at least, is the “proximate cause” of his troubles. There are deeper ones, an example of which is the fear that more than the possibility of loyalty to a local culture is becoming impossible. The dual evils of relentlessly competitive individualism and the kind of ruthless instrumentalism that is the negation of Kant’s cozy little “categorical imperative” (to say nothing of the “Golden Rule”) seem to be making even artificial and contrived forms of human community impossible as well. Experiencing a politically disastrous presidency is a temporary matter; it can be overcome. Confronting the dissolution of minimal moral standards is another matter entirely.

This man without a country tells (or re-tells) stories of traveling in Biafra during its hideous and failed war of independence, and of flunking out (temporarily) of the University of Chicago’s MA program in anthropology, and of running a failing Saab dealership on Cape Cod. He also tells us of success stories such as being taught by really good teachers and tries to inspire us to be really good teachers ourselves. He still believes in human imagination and in books. Libraries are sacred, though their main purpose may be reduced to providing evidence for future archaeologists—most likely from another planet—that our species was not as bad as the things we had done, that we had a few redeeming qualities.

Sad and disappointed as Kurt Vonnegut is, he remains preoccupied with the idea that nobility of purpose and decency of act remain undeniable human goods. The problem is that they seem to be in chronically short supply.

So, here is a dopey idea that Kurt Vonnegut would surely endorse on a warm, sunny day with his back turned to the C-students at Yale. It partly derives from this “my friend, Kurt Vonnegut” stuff. He once wrote of a peculiar custom among the literary set in New York. He said that such people were permitted to refer to one another as “friends,” even if they had met only once and even if that meeting was merely a nod of recognition or a quick hand-shake in a reception line. I’d like to extend this custom from the New York literati to the entire world.

I met and talked with Kurt Vonnegut once. Our conversation lasted less than half an hour. By chic New York standards, he is therefore “my friend”. By similar standards, I was also a friend of the late Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and of former NDP leaders Tommy Douglas and David Lewis. I am still a friend of Ed Broadbent and of former Prime Ministers John Turner and Jean Chrétien. I have been a friend of singers Gordon Lightfoot, Phil Ochs and Ian Tyson, Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael, Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother and Hawaiian member of the US House of Representatives Neil Abercrombie. I am therefore only one step away (a friend of a friend) from being a friend of Charles de Gaulle, Queen Elizabeth II and John F. Kennedy, plus any number of movie stars, poets and ordinary people hanging around rice paddies and gas stations the world over.

I was once told that, except for people who have lived in relative geographical isolation for long periods of time (Australian aborigines and so on), we need go back a remarkably few biological generations to establish a “blood relationship” with practically everyone on Earth. I was once told that every person of European ancestry is related (however distantly) to Charlemagne. I don’t know if any of this is true, but I do know that our “social” connections are closer and potentially more important than we choose to imagine.

Kurt Vonnegut might be drawn to such an idea. Knowing that we need only connect a few dots to find ourselves located in a firm and indissoluble web to just about every human being might be a start towards actually caring about every human being. I haven’t talked to my friend Kurt Vonnegut for about seventeen years. Chances are that I’ll never talk to him again. Still, what Studs Terkel calls his “obstinate, unfashionable humanism” may be the only tonic left to ameliorate the toxicity of massive technological empires and of the brutality they imply. Our societies may be losing their capacity to claim our loyalty but we may yet be able to reclaim our societies. Then, we might become worthy of Kurt Vonnegut’s loyalty.



Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at <howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca>.

Reviews

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2006 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology