Jailbird: A Novel
|by Kurt Vonnegut|
A Vonnegut Zone favorite... Jailbird is basically a 70's version of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. (Of course money is key to this comparison, but Hamlet is referenced in both works.) Vonnegut speaks of socialism to a great extent. The Prologue sums up the Vonnegut canon as "Love may fail, but courtesy will prevail."
In Palm Sunday, Kurt rated this novel as an "A," a grade he only gave to the likes of The Sirens of Titan, Mother Night, Cat's Cradle (A+), God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five (A+), and Jailbird. A funny thing to note is that a "Jerry Cha-Cha Rivera" mentioned in this novel sounds strangely similar to Geraldo Rivera, who was once married to Vonnegut's daughter.
Thematically Jailbird is related to God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater in looking at the economic circumstances of society from a moral standpoint. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti serve Jailbird much as Slapstick uses Laurel and Hardy - as a recurrent refrain that embellishes the theme of the novel. These two immigrants were tried as anarchist murderers and executed despite their certain innocence because they spoke eloquently for the working poor and because their socialist and unionist beliefs threatened rich and powerful men. Vonnegut reveres them much as he does the unionist from his native Indiana who in the early decades of the twentieth century ran for president five times on the Socialist ticket, Eugene Debs. There are other glimpses of the turbulent history of the formation of American unions, and various episodes debate the achievement of socio-economic equality. The prologue makes clear that just as Laurel and Hardy came out of Vonnegut's childhood memories during the Depression, so do Sacco and Vanzetti. The economic circumstances that colored his childhood less by deprivation than by their psychological impact on his parents reappear.
In the first chapter the narrator-protagonist, Walter F. Starbuck, says that years as well as people are characters in the book, "which is the story of my life," and goes on to elaborate dates, such as 1929, that shape his story. The first half of the prologue is autobiographical, in part devoted to explaining the wellsprings of the theme of the novel. It recalls a day in 1945 when Vonnegut, freshly returned from the war, met with his father, his Uncle Alex, and a union officer named Powers Hapgood to discuss his finding work with a union. Hapgood serves as the prototype for one of the fictional characters in the novel, Kenneth Whistler, who affirms the Sermon on the Mount as the basis of morality.
The second half of the prologue is fictional, providing an invented background for events in the novel. It tells the story of the McCones, a family of rich industrialists. Alexander McCone selects his chauffeur's son as a protégé, offering him wealth, privilege, and a Harvard education. To fit the part the boy's name is changed from Walter Stankiewicz to Walter Starbuck. While at Harvard, Starbuck turns toward socialism and the example of Whistler, consequently losing McCone's patronage. His career as a government bureaucrat crumbles soon after he exposes his friend Leland Clewes to the House Un-American Activities Committee as a former Communist. Committee member Richard Nixon remembers Starbuck for this service, and years later President Nixon makes Starbuck a White House staffer. His basement office becomes a repository for Nixon's slush funds, and for his unwitting role in the Watergate affair Starbuck goes to jail. The other main line of the plot concerns Mary Kathleen O'Looney, a college lover of Starbuck's who as Mrs. Jack Graham becomes the owner of the fabulous RAMJAC conglomerate. Like Howard Hughes, she becomes a recluse, hiding her identity as a bag lady. Starbuck's efforts to carry forward her business after her death, which he conceals, lead to his return to prison at the end of the novel.
Jailbird appeared at the time when some of those convicted in the Watergate scandal were publishing their stories, so a parody of those confessional pleas of innocence might be predicted. But Vonnegut is not vindictive; he lampoons rather than villainizes, and his satire reaches back past Watergate to the McCarthy era, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the "brightest and best" Harvard population in Washington during the Kennedy administration. Public fascination with the life and death of bizarre billionaire Hughes influenced the characterization of Mary Kathleen O'Looney. The novel, then, mixes fact and fiction; Nixon, Roy Cohen, Charles Colson, and others from the news of the time join with fictional characters. Events and places undergo a similar mixture. Finally - another innovation - there is an index that lists the real and the invented with like authenticity. This mixing of forms is an aspect of the postmodernism of the novel, although a few years earlier Vonnegut recounted visiting a university where he talked to some literary critics in the English department: "They called me a postmodernist," he said, "whatever the hell that is."
As is typical of Vonnegut's novels, the mosaic of vignettes, jokes, sketches, and analyses in Jailbird supersedes the importance of the story line per se. Vonnegut observed this direction in his fiction in the 1976 interview with Short:
There'll be more and more to complain about in my fiction. People will say it's not fiction any more, it's editorializing. And, you know, the stories are getting sketchier and sketchier and sketchier. But I like stories because they allow you to digress. I'm not capable of logic, really a paragraph to paragraph logic. And so the story form allows me to make statements that I know intuitively are true. I can't begin to buttress with arguments.
In part the novels of this period are less narrative and more editorial in nature. Also, like the "nonfiction novel" - for example, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1966) or Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night (1968) - in which fiction is created out of real historical events, his novels acknowledge the unreality of the factual and the inevitability of reality's being given artistic form in its recounting. At the same time there is recognition of the fictiveness of fiction. Reader and writer both know that while a novel is being told as if it were reality, it remains a fiction. Many readers in the present era find themselves uncomfortable with artifice presented as reality, thus a metal sculptor may leave girders showing to reveal the true artistic medium. Vonnegut exposes authorial presence and acknowledges the fictiveness of his novels most dramatically by the inclusion of himself in Slaughterhouse-Five - "that was me" - and by his direct involvement as chaaracter-author in Breakfast of Champions.
Such direct authorial declaration, and the combinations of the documentary and the fantastic, cosmic distortion and social realism, science fiction and history, and even real and fictional persons in the index, typifies the mixed character of postmodern fiction. Postmodernism rejects the implication in earlier writing that patterns can be found in chaos, that the world, however absurd it may appear, is explainable. Even depicting life in a narrative sequence implies cause and effect rather than randomness or chance. Postmodernists try not to make the contingency of life comfortable in the process of narrating it, hence their concern with constant shifts and changes that keep readers off guard. Vonnegut has moved increasingly in this direction. As he said in Breakfast of Champions, "Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done." The postmodernist does this believing that this "order" is a false imposition upon the true nature of a contingent world.
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