Still-funny Vonnegut returns, provides voice of reason

By Jessica Ramsey Golden

The Northern Light


If anything good can be said to have come from our country’s current political climate, it is this: it has inspired Kurt Vonnegut, American truth-speaker laureate, to break his vow of silence.

With the release of “Timequake” in 1998, Vonnegut swore he would not publish another book.

Good thing for us he was lying.

Considered by many to be one of the greatest American writers of all time, Vonnegut, now 82, has produced a plethora of masterpieces in the realms of science fiction, fiction, humor, non-fiction, art and beer.

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His latest work, “A Man Without A Country” was released last month, but was largely unavailable to buy until mid-October. The book is a collection of Vonnegut’s thoughts and personal experiences gathered from his essays and speeches during the last five years.

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Those who are familiar with the body of his work will recognize some of the stories and characters he writes about in this book, but he couches the material in fresh contexts.

Readers already in love with Vonnegut will rejoice to devour his ideas on the Bush administration, global warming, the meaning of life, computers and kindness. Those who’ve yet to encounter him will find this work a fitting introduction.

Characteristically, the book leaves readers feeling more like they’ve just had a conversation with a crotchety but wise stranger at a bus station rather than read a book by a “grandmaster of American letters.”

Although it takes a few pages to warm up, Vonnegut’s latest work is as cynical and laugh-out-loud funny as anything he’s published.

In it he abandons the semblance of fiction he painstakingly maintains in “Timequake” and some of his other late work. No meta-fiction for this book, although his science-fiction writing alter ego Kilgore Trout does get a brief mention. Instead, Vonnegut offers his reader a series of observations and stories delivered with his unique sense of irony and humanity.

He jokes about suing tobacco companies for mislabeling because he’s smoked all his life and it hasn’t killed him yet as promised.

In discussing the Bush Administration’s vilification of Arabs Vonnegut writes, “Do you think Arabs are dumb? They gave us our numbers. Try doing long division with Roman numerals.”

But underlying the humor is his sobering disappointment and dismay at the creative ways we humans find to fuck up each other, the planet and ourselves.

Regarding a collection by Mark Twain, Vonnegutt writes, “In the title story he proves to his own grim satisfaction, and to mine as well, that Satan and not God created ‘the damned human race.’ If you doubt that, read your morning paper. Never mind what paper. Never mind what date.”

This quote comes from my favorite part of the book, a chapter wherein Vonnegutt shares some of the questions he’s been asked by fans. These include “Why can’t people see that the military dictator in the White House has no clothes?” and a letter from “a sappy woman from Ypsilanti” who asks how moral it is to bring a child into such a frightening world.

In his direct answer to them and in an attempt to speak some reason in an age of insanely misaligned priorities, Vonnegut gives his readers what they have always sought in him: kindness, humor and honesty.