Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut

It strikes me, not for the first time whilst reading Vonnegut that writers can be divided into two camps. The ones who have to work to include that smart-arse-clever line/sentence/phrase they jotted down somewhere, sometime and really really need to get in. Who was it who said that the more you like something you’ve written down, the more likely it is that you should take it out? And the ones who, even if what they say hits you with a jolt – and Vonnegut’s lines often do that – they nonetheless fit in. They aren’t forced, they naturally belong just there where the reader sets upon them. There is a hilarious Kilgore Trout story about Einstein trying to get into heaven in Jailbird. He goes through an audit first and then:

He thought no more about the audit. He was a veteran of countless border crossings by then. There had always been senseless questions to answer, empty promises to make, meaningless documents to sign.

Isn’t this a fantastic way to describe entering heaven? A border crossing, one of many.

When describing an encounter with Nixon:

That smile has always looked to me like a rosebud that had just been smashed by a hammer.

What a line! If somebody ever did a list-of-the-hundred-lines-describing-smiles-you-have-to-read-before-you-die, wouldn’t this be number one? By a mile?

I couldn’t help but associate with the hero’s description of learning French. I learnt French briefly at school in Australia where not only did we as a generality, not care in the least how we pronounced it, but the specificity of my experience was to be taught by a German whose French accent was less than negligible.

‘Bon appetite!’ said the owner. I was thrilled. I had never had anybody say that to me before. I was so pleased to understand something in French without the help of an interpreter. I had studied French for four years in a Cleveland public high school, by the way, but I never found anyone who spoke the dialect I learned out there. It may have been French as it was spoken by Iroquois mercenaries in the French and Indian war.

This is hilarious, stirring and pathetic in equal measure, a bizarre combination of fiction and history which works, though I don’t understand why or how. Far from dating, its relevancy holds strong, an observation of American society as the rich continue to get richer and healthier, the workers poorer and sicker.


3 thoughts on “Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut

    • Is that so, Meredith. I wonder if she’d be as horrified as I was a couple of weeks ago when I mentioned Vonnegut to a couple who would consider themselves cultured and well read and bohemian and sixties people and they hadn’t heard of him or any of his books. I wouldn’t have been surprised of thirty year olds being so blithely ignorant of his existence, but sixty year olds took me by surprise.

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