Man without a Country, A: by Kurt Vonnegut, 145 pgs. By Aphid

Apr 05, 2006

Like Studs Terkel—and, most likely, a good portion of the ever-dwindling few among us who pay any attention anymore to “non-blog” writing—I am delighted and, somehow, deeply relieved that Kurt Vonnegut didn’t make good on his threat to never write another book again. For the last several years, he has seemed so ready to walk away from it all and just be swallowed up by the mists of time—or whatever it is that happens to great Men of Letters who have been nuzzled to the side of the road by the latest literary fad. For some reason the quirky, kindhearted humor and “perpetual astonishment” of Kurt Vonnegut just don’t seem to neatly fit into this self-absorbed epoch of digital vanity publishing. And he, like the canary in the coal mine that he is, seemed to sense it first. He wrote in Timequake in 1996 that writers—or “craftspeople”—like himself are now considered by the general populace to be as quaint “as contemporary makers in New England tourist towns of the toy windmills known since colonial times as whirligigs.” That’s the sort of talk you expect from someone whose “peephole” is about to close, as Vonnegut himself might say. But now a collection of brief memoirs and wisdom-filled rants called A Man without a Country has suddenly fallen into our laps and Vonnegut-o-philes like myself have much cause for celebration. This smallish, neat book is like a Whitman’s Sampler of classic Vonnegut-isms. In it, he covers some of his own personal history, rehashes and updates some theories on the craft of storytelling, and goes after the powers-that-be in this country—equating them with psychopathic personalities, i.e: “personable people who have no consciences.” My only problem was that I could’ve “used a nipple” for this book, as we say in beer drinking parlance, because, with only 145 pages and nearly children’s-book-sized type, I was definitely nursing this one. I just didn’t want it to end. For me, there’s always been a lot to like about Vonnegut’s writing, from his sardonic wit to his unflagging humanism and his keen appreciation for the slap-stick nature of human existence. I don’t know if there’s any other author who’s made me laugh out loud more frequently. But I think the thing that I like, above all else, is his ability, with a seemingly simple turn of a phrase or unexpected word combination, to make the mundane and familiar suddenly strange and new. And that humble, but invaluable, little trick of tripping up the reader’s perception is something few writers are able to do with any consistency. And it’s worth more than all the whirligigs in the world. Vonnegut wrote, again in Timequake, that “a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit.” I would have to say that, once again, with A Man without a Country, Vonnegut has scored a “Mission Accomplished” with me. And I mean that in the pre-Dubya sense of the term. While it still seems that Vonnegut is perfectly willing to go out with the final bang of the Gutenberg galaxy, he is, at least for now, still here with us. It will be a sad day indeed when his peephole is closed for good. –Aphid Peewit (Seven Stories, 140 Watts St., New York, NY, 10013)

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