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Book Review

By Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat

 

Jailbird
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Delta 08/79 Paperback $14.00
ISBN: 0385333900


I.

"One of the characters [in a suicide parlor] asked a death stewardess if he would go to heaven, and she told him that of course he would. He asked if he would see God, and she said: 'Certainly, honey.' And he said, 'I sure hope so, I want to ask something I never was able to find out down here.' 'What's that?' she said, strapping him in. 'What in hell are people for?' "
      
from Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

II.

WALTER F. STARBUCK

Professional Objective: I believe there is no higher calling in democracy than lifetime service in government.

Education Attended Harvard in 1931, graduated with a degree in the liberal arts with specialties in history and economics. Studied in England as a Rhodes Scholar.

Professional Experience:
Department of Agriculture, 1938
Civilian employee of the Defense Department in Germany, 1945.
Following the conclusion of World War II worked "tabulating the likes and dislikes of soldiers of various major American races and religions, and from various educational and economic background, for various sorts of field rations, some of them new and experimental."
Special Advisor to President Nixon on Youth Affairs, 1970-1975.
Jailbird, a recidivist, 1980

Starbuck, the hero of Kurt Vonnegut's novel Jailbird is born in 1913 as Walter Stankiewicz, son of Stanislaus, a bodyguard and chauffer, and Ann, a cook — both in the employ of Alexander Hamilton McCone, a reclusive Cleveland millionaire. The boy's name is changed to Starbuck when McCone decides to send the lad to Harvard, his alma mater.

Starbuck garners all his jobs in government on the flimsy basis of his liberal arts degree. "There was nothing that a humanist could not supervise — or so it was widely believed at the time." So much for professionalism in America's highest bureaucracy.

III.

"I still believe that peace and plenty of happiness can be worked out some way. I am a fool," notes Walter F. Starbuck.

In 1946 our hero meets Ruth, a Jewish concentration camp survivor who has a less cheery view of human nature than her husband. In Nuremberg she calls him a child and notes:

"Well, when you eight-year-olds kill Evil here in Nuremberg, be sure to bury it at a crossroads and drive a stake through its heart — or you just might see it again at the next full mooooooooooooooooooooon."

He marries her anyway, despite their differences. Later in his life, Walter wonders why people tolerated fighter planes which "tore the sky to shreds," why joggers are so smug, and why he intensely dislikes his son, a book reviewer for The New York Times.

IV.

Young people refuse to see the obvious impossibility of world disarmament and economic equality. Could be fault of New Testament. (Quod Vide).
— Walter F. Starbuck, President's Special Advisor on Youth Affairs

This memo is never given to President Nixon. In fact, Starbuck's only encounter with him is in a meeting after Kent State. While nervously chain smoking cigarettes, Starbuck sends up a column of smoke. The President notices him:

" 'We will pause in our business,' he said, 'while our special advisor on youth affairs gives us a demonstration on how to put out a campfire.' "

The innocent Starbuck is sent to prison. It turns out that the Watergate conspirators decided to use his nondescript subbasement office as a hiding place for illegal campaign funds. Starbuck accepts his fate: "I was just a little mouse from the White House pantry."

V.

The best portion of a good man's life,
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love.
— William Wordsworth

In prison, Starbuck is befriended by Clyde Carter, a guard who is the third cousin to the President, and by Bob Fenton, a veterinarian who's serving a life sentence for treason committed during the Korean War. To escape the tedium, Fenton writes science fiction stories, and Starbuck daydreams.

Expecting to be lonely and rejected following his release from prison, our hero is surprised by the kindness of strangers: a black limousine driver who gives him a lift, a night clerk at a hotel in New York who treats him like royalty, and a coffee shop owner who runs his place for reasons other than a profit motive. Starbuck then bumps into Leland Clewes, an enemy from the past who forgives Walter for accidentally betraying him.

VI.

The unfortunate need people who will be kind to them; the prosperous need people to be kind to.
— Aristotle

Is he dreaming? Starbuck runs into Mary Kathleen O'Looney, a former mistress from his college days who found him special because he was cochairman of the Harvard chapter of the Young Communist League. She's disguised as a New York City shopping bag lady in order to elude her enemies. Walter gives her a great big hug and finds out that she's a Howard Hughes-like multimillionaire and head of RAMJAC Corporation, a conglomerate that owns 19% of America. She wants to give the country back to the people. For the time being, Mary makes Walter a vice president and has him bestow similar power positions in her corporation to all those who have shown him kindness.

VII.

So I elected to complain about our levity.
"You know what is finally going to kill this planet? . . . A total lack of seriousness," I said. "Nobody gives a damn anymore about what's really going on, what's going to happen next, or how we even got into such a mess in the first place."

It would be quite easy to carp about Vonnegut as a limousine liberal. No sweat to put down this book's gratuitous digressions and repetitious use of jerky refrains. Many want to see a superstar like Vonnegut slip on the banana peel of platitudes and excessive sentimentalism. But let's face it, the human lot is not a happy one and the least we can do is be kind.

Life is funny sometimes, observed the hero of Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle. And sometimes it isn't, was the reply.

Jailbird gives us both sides and draws the lines where they should be drawn. And best of all, the author answers the question posed in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: What are people for? To live by acts of kindness.

 

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by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
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