The Vonnegut Zone - Deadeye Dick

Deadeye Dick

Kurt Vonnegut

Commentary found through Gale Database: Dictionary of Literary Biography:

Shortly after his sixtieth birthday Vonnegut published his tenth novel, Deadeye Dick (1982). There is less direct infusion of autobiographical fact or authorial voice than in the preceding novels. The short introduction contains little personal rumination, nor is the story framed by authorial declaration or punctuated by interjections as in Slaughterhouse-Five, but the introduction firmly announces the way in which this book fictionalizes autobiography:

I will explain the main symbols in this book.
There is an unappreciated, empty arts center in the shape of a sphere. That is my head as my sixtieth birthday beckons me.
There is a neutron bomb explosion in a populated area. This is the disappearance of so many people I cared about in Indianapolis when I was starting out to be a writer. Indianapolis is there, but the people are gone.
Haiti is New York City, where I live now.
The neutered pharmacist who tells the tale is my declining sexuality. The crime he committed in childhood is all the bad things I have done.
In effect, the events and characters of the book are frequently metaphorical equivalents of those in Vonnegut's life. He gives a warning about this as well: "This is fiction, not history, so it should not be used as a reference book." And Deadeye Dick abounds in fictions. Fictions are the provisional realities by which the characters live. Author, narrator, and characters invent their own stories to describe what life feels like to them.

This emphasis on subjective impressions of reality is underlined in the way the narrator, Rudy Waltz, describes life: "I was a wisp of undifferentiated nothingness, and then a little peephole opened quite suddenly. Light and sound poured in. Voices began to describe me and my surroundings. Nothing they said could be appealed." Throughout the novel people are born, and voices go on describing them until they die. Sometimes the fictions these voices invent hardly fit the character. Rudy never even sees the woman he accidently shoots, but the people of Midland City call him "Deadeye Dick" for most of his life. Rudy also invents fictions. Besides writing his play based on the life of his father's old friend, he punctuates his narrative with dramatic scenes that reenact key episodes between the people in his life. Beyond that, Rudy believes (as Vonnegut has suggested previously) that people make their lives into stories. In general he suspects that a good deal of mischief results from people's trying to invent for themselves interesting fictions.

Deadeye Dick itself is a fiction inhabiting a fiction. As if to emphasize the point about fiction being only a provisional reality, this novel is set, in effect, in another one - Breakfast of Champions. Names, places, dates, and events are all the same from that novel to this. For instance, Celia Hildreth becomes Celia Hoover, Dwayne's wife, who has a homosexual son named Bunny and who kills herself by imbibing Drano. There are also allusions to other Vonnegut books. The metafictional highlight comes when, at Celia Hoover's funeral, Rudy finds himself inappropriately smiling. "I glanced around to see if anyone had noticed. One person had. He was at the other end of our pew, and he did not look away when I caught him gazing at me. He went right on gazing, and it was I who faced forward again. I had not recognized him. He was wearing large sunglasses with mirrored lenses. He could have been anyone." The man is Kurt Vonnegut , author and character, described as he appears in Breakfast of Champions.

Vonnegut has made himself a character in this story in other ways as well. Rudy is ten years younger than Vonnegut , so he goes through some experiences that might be equivalents of the author's own a decade later. For example, Rudy's traumatizing shock, the shooting, happens when he is twelve, the suicide of Vonnegut's mother when he was twenty-two. These events occur on the same date: Mother's Day 1944. Rudy's play bombs on 14 February; Dresden was bombed on the night of 13-14 February. Like the events, the characters are reinventions of those in Vonnegut's life. The mother whose "story ended when she married the handsomest rich man in town" and who cannot cope with crumbling fortunes later might stand for his own mother, as might Celia in her suicide. Elsewhere, however, Celia seems to represent his sister, especially in completing the threesome with Rudy and his brother Felix, who, like Vonnegut's brother, is seven years his senior. While Vonnegut clearly is engaged in a new fiction, one should remember his admonition that this "is fiction, not history" and not read it simply as a roman clef. More important is how Vonnegut uses this autobiographical material - the fictionalizing process at work in this particular novel and, more broadly, in the continuation of his canon. In this process he has evolved new descriptions of what experience feels like to him and new forms of the novel to match modern society's changing ways of understanding itself.

One curiosity of Deadeye Dick is the inclusion of recipes. Some of the recipes seem hilarious simply in the telling, others by their content. In some ways the recipes are reminiscent of the calypsos in Cat's Cradle. There are other echoes of previous works, especially in the general notion that language itself fictionalizes. In Deadeye Dick, for instance, Haitian Creole is presented as having only a present tense, so that time and existence are transformed by the telling, as in this discussion of Rudy's late father:

"He is dead?" he said in Creole. "He is dead," I agreed. "What does he do?" he said. "He paints," I said. "I like him," he said.

Deadeye Dick ranks as one of Vonnegut's funniest books, noticeably lacking the bleakness imparted to Slapstick by deformed characters and blasted landscapes. Its critical acclaim was qualified. For some the experiments in form were a distraction, the evocation of previous work mistaken for mere repetition, and the lack of an engrossing, connected plot line a limitation. Technically it remains one of his most innovative books, however, and for that reason, as well as the autobiographical elements, may continue to grow in interest.

Written by: Peter J. Reed, University of Minnesota Source: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 152: American Novelists Since World War II, Fourth Series, Updated Entry. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. The Gale Group, 1995. pp. 248-272.

Review found through NoveList:
Deadeye Dick

Publishing Information:
Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, copyright 1982. 240p.
Subject Headings:
Satirical fiction

Later printing issued by Dell Publishing

Web References:
A Tribute to Kurt Vonnegut Features Vonnegut's bibliography and links to other web sites about the author
Kurt Vonnegut Corner Features Vonnegut's biography, photos, and discussions and analysis of Voneegut's works
Hennepin County Public Library

Print Sources:
  • "An Air of Defeat": Jailbird and Deadeye Dick
Links Related Outside the Vonnegut Zone:

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