It is often difficult to know whether Kurt Vonnegut is pulling the reader's leg, but one thing is for certain. No matter how humorous or off the wall what he writes appears to be, he is deadly serious - or, I think he is. In this case, the dozen brief essays are both off the wall and serious. They are vintage Vonnegut.
Vonnegut has rightly been called the Mark Twain of our time. After almost a decade's absence and a promise to write no more, it is comforting, challenging, and disturbing to hear his voice again. Funny. Serious. Searching for Truth. ("I would like to go to heaven to ask somebody in charge up there, 'Hey, what was the good news and what was the bad news?' ") I had not realized how much I had missed him until I began reading. Who but Vonnegut could infuse so much meaning into the three names which conclude the next sentence? "The last thing I ever wanted was to be alive when the three most powerful people on the whole planet would be named Bush, Dick and Colon."
A dozen short essays, a poem, and an author's note make up this brief work of non-fiction. Most were written during the past five years for the Chicago-based magazine In These Times. These articles were the most visited ones on the magazine's website. Each essay is illustrated with Vonnegut's personal, epigrammatic art work. ("To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it.") I cannot judge whether Vonnegut's soul has grown, but A Man Without A Country clearly shows that his ability to confront and sometimes confound our thoughts on a variety of subjects has not diminished.
Interestingly, the art work is produced through his partnership with the artist Joe Petro III in a company called Origami. Just as origami is created through folds, twists, and turns which seem to head into an unknown direction, so it goes with Vonnegut's writing. The way may be convoluted, but the direction is clear at the end.
These subjects are wide-ranging: "Here is a lesson in creative writing;" "I have been called a Luddite;" "A sappy woman from Ypsilanti;" "I used to be the owner and manager of an automobile dealership." Each topic, and its accompanying artwork, provides a platform from which to begin an excursion through other realms. The lesson on creative writing, for example, is illustrated with drawings and verbal descriptions of where stories begin and where they go. Only Vonnegut could bring together Cinderella, Kafka's cockroach, and Hamlet and make a cogent connection among the three. Elsewhere, he says, "I'm startled that I became a writer
.Every other writer I know feels he is steering himself, and I don't have that feeling. I don't have that sort of control. I'm simply becoming." He just wanted to "give people the relief of laughing." We do laugh, but it is not always a comfortable laugh.
A Man Without A Country is already having an effect on contemporary life beyond the literary world. Driving into work recently, I listened to a comic doing a riff on our fast-paced life. People around the world wait in line for hours for a cup of water, a bite of food. Americans are in line 9 seconds at Costco and we want to know what the problem is. The comic further emphasized his point by noting a passage "from a recent Vonnegut book" in which he writes about walking down to the corner kiosk in New York City to buy a mailing envelope. Why, his wife asks, don't you buy them in bulk? Because I see things and I meet interesting people, Vonnegut says.