Monday, June 17, 2013

A Man Without a Country (Kurt Vonnegut)

A Man Without a Country, Kurt Vonnegut
Read: 24 May to 25 May 2013
4 / 5 stars

And if I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say "Kurt is up in heaven now." That's my favorite joke.

In a country that gets its feathers ruffled beyond all rational allowance should one commit the hell-worthy trespass of bidding someone else of unknown spiritual beliefs an all-encompassing, meant-to-convey-well-wishings-without-presumption "Happy holidays" and thus betray one's role as a covert hippie cog in the heathen machine that's making a religious majority feel increasingly insecure about its apex-predator status, we have been blessed with the bastion of razor-sharp wit and level-headed wisdom of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., a man who knew that "[h]umor is a way of holding off how awful life can be, to protect yourself" and has offered shelter through laughter, however sardonic it may get, to anyone who's sought either full-on refuge or just a few hours of necessary escapism behind the shield of his words.

Ever since I picked up and tore through Slaughterhouse-Five much to my surprised delight, Vonnegut has held a special place in my terminally uncool, fiercely enthusiastic bookworm heart. I was not expecting masterfully balanced humor and heartbreak and a tale that positively trounced my initially wary approach in a matter of pages -- and KV has left me absolutely dazzled if not downright delighted time after time, book after book. I usually help myself to a few of his works every year, ever mindful that I don't want to gobble them up too quickly and be left with nothing until more posthumous releases make their way to publication (though it's not like Vonnegut was stingy with his output). I've been craving his words and particular perspective a bit more keenly than usual after having felt his influence practically radiate off the pages of George Saunders's own variations on black humor; this, rather than a novel, turned out to be exactly what I'd wanted.

What I got with this collection was what one back-cover blurb so correctly asserted to be "like sitting down on the couch for a long chat with an old friend." A Man Without a Country, published two years before Vonnegut's death, during what seemed an especially hopeless stretch of Dubbya's ill-gotten presidential stronghold, is nothing but a mosaic of the writer comprising a parade of varied but interlocking short essays. And even though it features the proclamation that Mr. Vonnegut had lost hope in humanity toward the end of his life, so much of what he put forth in these collected essays contradicted such an uncharacteristic statement from one of the most cautiously optimistic and darkly hilarious writers I've ever had the good fortune to know through his brainchildren.

This all-too-short collection -- equal parts biography, writing guide (complete with hand-drawn plot diagrams!) and celebration of creativity, no matter how ham-fisted, an On Writing of Kurt's own -- served as a spot-on capstone for the literary legacy he left behind, as Vonnegut intended it to be his last published work. Far from the cranky, doddering old man he could have become, the insights here betray the good-hearted core of an archly lucid humanist who has seen (and, indeed, lived through as a WWII soldier and POW) the worst his fellow Earthlings can do to each other but still sees a glimmer of hope for their future. He knows we've trashed the Good Mother and her finite resources all in the name of greed and getting from A to B in record time, that we've used our scientific advances for chiefly devastating effects rather than giant leaps toward good, that politicians are paving the way for a bleaker, more selfish way of life but zeros in on the saintly individuals ("By saints I mean people who behaved decently in a strikingly indecent society," he says) who've made the most of their stay on this hurdling blue marble to the betterment of their tiny but significant microcosm. There is hope in these unsung minor heroes and Vonnegut gives a voice to their songs, as there's no hope for the human species but for a few remarkable creatures who do everything they can to benefit whomever they can with whatever they've got.

Between a sci-fi moniker (a label not of the author's choosing, as discussed herein alongside his vaguely Luddite inklings) stemming from his seemingly outlandish visions of the future and his satirical but not caustically so lampooning of all the things wrong with our current society that very well could be handily laying the foundation for such oncoming terrors if we don't address the problems immediately, Vonnegut has left a giant, blinking neon sign pointing toward a better tomorrow for all who are brave and willing enough to downsize their egos to follow his lead. He's like the impatient but understanding grandfather we all so desperately need to point out our failings but follows up the well-meaning criticism with a cookie and hug, whose high standards but well-earned belly laugh make one want to live up to the good-of-us-all standards he has so thoughtfully set up for those who dare to take a gander at the blueprints.

I honestly don't know if the world is a better place since Vonnegut issued his last collection. I know it's a little more witless without him but I also know that, on a much smaller scale, I've been able to improve my staunchly pessimistic regard for my fellow two-legged beasts when I stop judging the whole and admire the day-to-day efforts of those individuals whose good intentions have them railing against the ugliness that could be so easy to submit to if not for their determination to keep fighting the good fight in the stead of greater minds who've fought before. A Man Without a Country is the rally cry for anyone who wants to prove that optimism isn't always a symptom of naïvety, that it's only by objectively understanding the bigger picture and your place in it that you can hold an educated opinion about how much better things can be and how we can slowly but steadily make it there.

God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut (and I hope you would have appreciated the joke, sir).

No comments:

Post a Comment