Goodbye Blue Monday
It only took me an hour to read Kurt Vonnegut's most recent book, A Man Without a Country. It is not a substantial book in any sense. Variously promoted as memoir, as polemic, as a summing up, it actually resembles the kind of structureless, extempore lecture a curmudgeonly relative might launch into on Christmas Day. Vonnegut trumps my relatives, at least, by being personable and witty, and capable of expressing anger and dismay without embarassment or hysteria - he's the great benevolent uncle I never had. So even though this book is slight, it is a pleasure to once again hear his voice.
There are bits of memoir in A Man Without a Country, bits of polemic and bits of whatever else Vonnegut happened to be brooding on at the time these pieces - originally published in a newspaper called In These Times - were written. That is, pretty much what he's been brooding on forever: cruelty and kindness, laughter and sadness. He is the great American sentimentalist, but with a cold streak of disdain for liars and tyrants. Vonnegut's argument is not sophisticated or profound, but it warms my aorta to see him denounce in print the "guessers" who control all our fates.
Vonnegut is as wishy-washy and folksy and bleeding-of-heart as ever here. He is also as hard-headed and realistic as ever. That subtle mockery of "grown-up" pieties that is so attractive in the novels is present also, e.g. "We are here on Earth to fart around. Don't let anybody tell you any different". Not exactly a clarion call to revolution, but nonetheless an affecting little irritant for a shallowly idealistic culture. There are plenty of similar lines scattered through the book. Many are rehashed versions of previous witticisms, which I guess could be considered lazy. But whatever, the guy is eighty-four years old. Allowances should probably be made.
Anyway, as I said it only took me an hour to read A Man Without a Country. It's not the greatest thing ever written, but it is amusing enough. Nice to know Vonnegut is still out there, ticking over. There's a photo on the back of the dust jacket that shows Vonnegut standing on a beach, his back turned to the camera, hands in pockets and looking out over the ocean. At first glance it struck me as a cliche: elderly man contemplates the infinite/mortality/his cataracts. But having read the book, the photo takes on extra meaning. Vonnegut comes across as tired, and like the aging Twain seems to have given up on the world. The end is now in sight. In the photo, Vonnegut is not contemplating anything. He is watching the waves creep closer to his feet: he is waiting to be taken.