PALM SUNDAY is an alimony book. If you haven't heard of this new genre yet, remember, you first read about it here. The alimony book is worth discussing, and it is certainly worth deploring. If is just not worth reading. Where other books aim to instruct or delight, its sole purpose is to make money. That is its low distinction. The champion alimony book writer is Norman Mailer, who has had a series of wives and has produced alimony books to provide for each of them. But you don't have to be divorced to do an alimony book. Gore Vidal, who has not been divorced, has just published a classic of the genre; a collection of interviews with himself. No, all it takes to write an alimony book is fame and an easy literary conscience. Put them together and you have Palm Sunday.
Palm Sunday, whose identity as an alimony book Vonnegut gives away by calling it "an autobiographical collage," was commited in a mercenary spirit, without regard for art or intellect or even the reader's ability to recognize that what is being said on page 280 was already said on page 10. A partial list of its contents -- three pages filled with the names of Vonnegut's writer friends, an advertisement Vonnegut wrote for the International Paper Company, a preface he wrote for an edition of Gulliver's Travels (which the publisher wisely rejected), a speech he delivered to the spellbound graduates of Hobert and William Smith Colleges, a story called "The Big Space F---," about earth's effort to impregnate a neighboring galaxy by shooting a load of "jizzum" at it in a rocket -- should make that clear. Since the book is an embarrassment, it is hard toimagine why anyone not bent on proving P. T. Barnum a profound diagnostician of the American soul would pay $13.95 for the doubtful privilege of owning it.
But for the diehard Vonnegut fans among my readers, I will reveal where the good stuff is in the book, so that they may go to the bookstore and read it, free, meaning investing their $13.95 in a worthier book (any other book should fill that bill). So: the most engaging section of the book is the self interview between pages 82-ll7. For those who do not even want to take the trouble to go to the bookstore, I will tell its two good lines. There is this droll exchange on the notices received by Vonnegut's novel, Slapstick.
"INTERVIEWER: There were some bad reviews?
VONNEGUT: Only in The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, The New York Review of Books, The Village Voice, and Rolling Stone. They loved me in Medicine Hat."
The second noteworthy line is this bit of black humor about the bombing of Dresden. (Mr. Vonnegut was a prisoner of was in Dresden when it was fire bombed to cinders in World Was II; the bombing would later form the subject of his novel, Slaughterhouse-Five):
"VONNEGUT: . . . Only one person on the entire planet benefited from the raid, which must have cost tens of millions of dollars. The raid didn't shorten the war by half a second, didn't weaken a German defense or attack anywhere, didn't free a single person from a death camp. Only one person "benefited -- not two or five or ten. Just one.
INTERVIEWER: And who was that?
VONNEGUT: Me, I got three dollard for each person killed. Imagine that."
Since estimates of the dead run to 135,000, Vonnegut made roughly half a million dollars off Dresden. Quite a killing. What was it Marx said about the cycles of history: First time around as tragedy, second time as farce?
The rest of the book is a repetitious chronicle, artlessly arranged, of Vonnegut's life and opinions. He's for dogs, kindness, mercy and the First Ammendment; but he's for them in such as easy attitudinizing way that he made me kick my dog and send a check to Jerry Falwell. Vonnegut also comes out against boredom, which is a brave thing for the author of a snoozer like Palm Sunday to do. Vonnegut -- and in this he obviously has the edge on his critics -- is a caring man. For example, he cares about the problems of writers, both here and in the Soviet Union, and he is properly proud of his six children, he feels that he himself is not sufficiently appreciated, declaring that what he wants "more than anything" is "the unqualified approval of may community," by which he means the community of his birth, Indianapolis.
It seems the hometown folks are offended by the occasional four letter work in Vonnegut's novels. Vonnegut in turn takes offense at their offense, finding it undiscerning criticism which fails to take account of his commitment to right doing and feeling. Yet later on in the book, we find Vonnegut boasting that he is the only author in history to put the word "f---" in the title of a story -- it is the story's only distinction -- so it really does seem as if he deliverately tries to shock people with these jejune gestures of his. And, oh yes, Vonnegut is divorced.