Nineteen-hundred and Thirteen gave him the gift of life. Nineteen-hundred and Thirty-eight got him a job in the federal government. Nineteen-hundred and Seventy gave him a job in the Nixon White House. Nineteen-hundred and Seventy-five sent him to prison for his part in the American political scandals known collectively as 'Watergate'.
Pay attention please to the life of Walter F. Starbuck. Nineteen-hundred and Thirteen gave him the gift of life. Nineteenth-hundred and Thirty-one sent him to Harvard. Nineteen-hundred and Thirty-eight got him a job in the federal government. Nineteen-hundred and Seventy gave him a job in the Nixon White House. Nineteen-hundred and Seventy-five sent him to prison for his part in the American political scandals known collectively as 'Watergate'.
Now Walter F. Starbuck is coming out of jail, into the brave new world of 1980s Manhattan, and this is the story of his first twenty-four hours of freedom.
Kurt Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis in 1922 and studied biochemistry at Cornell University. During WWII, as a prisoner of war in Germany, he witnessed the destruction of Dresden by Allied bombers, an experience which inspired Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut's black humor, satiric voice, and incomparable imagination first captured America's attention in The Sirens of Titan in 1959 and according to Harper's Magazine, established him as 'a true artist' with Cat's Cradle in 1963. He was, as Graham Greene declared, 'one of the best living American writers'. Vonnegut died in April 2007.
"As provoking, as amusing and as silver-tongued as anything Vonnegut has written" New Statesman "Jailbird has the crackle and snap of Vonnegut's early work - his best since Cat's Cradle. Using the laid-back, ironic voice that has become his stademark, Vonnegut combines fiction and fact to construct an ingenious, wry morality play" Newsweek "An overtly political novel attacking McCarthyism and Watergate" Daily Telegraph "After Vonnegut, everything else seems a bit tame" Spectator
No one can make America into childlike myth like Vonnegut can. Here he takes capitalism, labor history, Sacco-Vanzetti, McCarthyism, and Watergate, and puts them all into the slender memoirs of Walter F. Starbuck - a chauffeur's son who was mentored by the scion of a great and ruthless corporation, was sent to Harvard, but was abandoned when he was caught dabbling in the 1930s left-wing; which meant that Walter had to make his own way as a WW II soldier, Washington civil servant, unintentional stoolie in a Hiss/Chambers-type case, unemployed husband (his concentration-camp-survivor wife supported them with interior decorating), and finally Nixon's token "advisor for youth affairs" and a very minor Watergate convict. So now old Walter is getting out of minimum-security prison (where he has met Vonnegut's Kilgore Trout), without a friend in the world - his wife is dead and his son is "a very unpleasant person. . . a book reviewer for The New York Times" - and with hopes of becoming a bartender somewhere in Manhattan. All this is told in Vonnegut's customary fatless, detail-rich, musical prose (with the usual ironic asides: "And on and on," "Peace," "Strong stuff"), and it's strangely touching, occasionally boldly funny. But as good as he is at building a haunted, hilariously compressed myth out of our shared past, Vonnegut can't keep it from collapsing into silliness when he tries to propel it into the future; Walter's post-prison adventures are so fairy-tale-ish and theme-heavy that they lose that precariously balanced aura of truer-than-true. Once in Manhattan, he meets the major people from his past in one coincidence after another, including his old flame and fellow left-winger Mary Kathleen O'Looney, who is now a N.Y. shopping-bag lady living beneath Grand Central Station - but is she really a bag lady? No! She's really "the legendary Mrs. Jack Graham," neverseen majority stockholder in the all-powerful RAMJAC Corporation. So Walter is suddenly made a corporate bigwig, and, when Mary Kathleen secretly dies, he illegally (but well-meaningly) keeps the company going. . . and winds up a jailbird again. Rich/poor, honest/criminal, management/labor - Vonnegut is playfully exploring the ease with which an American Everyman can alternate between these ostensible extremes. But he has covered much of that ground before - principally in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater - and he himself seems to become bored and mechanical halfway through. Not top-drawer Vonnegut, then, but guilty/innocent Walter is a fine creation, and there's enough of the author's narrative zip to keep fans happy even while the novel fizzles into foolishness. (Kirkus Reviews)
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