THAT KURT VONNEGUT is widely esteemed as one
of the most consequential American writers of the age says more about the age, perhaps, than it does about Vonnegut. He is a harmless and amiable writer, blessed with good humor if not wit, and probably should not be held entirely to blame for the excesses of adulation that have been heaped upon him since his emergence, in the 1960s, as the bard of flower power. But it certainly is a bleak commentary upon the state of American letters that a press release accompanying Deadeye Dick, Vonnegut's new novel, indulges in no hyperbole when it declares that "Vonnegut is regarded as one of the living masters of contemporary literature."
That Vonnegut has been an enormously popular commodity in the campus bookstores since the days of Haight-Ashbury is no surprise; his bittersweet talk of love and peace is exactly suited to late-adolescent sentimentality, and he couches it in language that is accessible to a generation reared on television and grocery- store gossip magazines. It is not even surprising that he is so widely taught in the English departments; the poor professors, circling the wagons around their tenured but shrinking fiefdoms, will teach anything -- from Rod McKuen to Hunter Thompson to Kurt Vonnegut -- if it will help fill seats.
But Vonnegut's high critical reputation is a mystery, the only reasonable explanation for which seems to be that the critics and scholars have permitted their political sentiments to cloud their literary judgment. A characteristic example can be found in Bright Book of Life, Alfred Kazin's survey of American fiction since 1940, in which the prominent critic observes that "Vonnegut's evasion of realistic description seems typical of the morally outraged, unpolitical, widespread sense of American futility about our government's making war in and on Indochina for almost a decade." This comment strikes me, perhaps unfairly, as more political than literary in nature, and it seems to me typical of the applause with which Vonnegut's work has been greeted for two decades: What Kazin describes as "Vonnegut's total horror of war" seems to have blinded even his most intelligent readers to the extraordinary simplemindedness with which, in his fiction, he gives voice to that horror.
In point of fact, that fiction is almost completely lacking in intellectual depth or stylistic grace. The most that Vonnegut can come up with in the way of ideas is sophomoric irony: in Slaughterhouse-Five his response to death and destruction is, "So it goes"; in Deadeye Dick he informs us that "almost anything desirable was likely to be booby-trapped." His pose of wry resignation in the face of life's ceaseless inequities and iniquities is quite in tune with the precocious disenchantment of his young audience, and the Dick-and-Jane prose with which he elucidates it is so bare of complexity and nuance that even the most marginally literate reader should have no difficulty deciphering it.
Deadeye Dick is in all respects characteristic of Vonnegut's work. It is a political tract -- where on earth did Kazin get the idea that Vonnegut "has no politics"? -- in which the principal subjects are firearms and neutron bombs. Needless to say, Vonnegut deplores them. So do I. But Vonnegut states his sentiments in such a predictable, reflexive and unimaginative way that by the end of Deadeye Dick I was of a mind to sign up with the National Rifle Association and do a neutron number on the literary precincts of the Hamptons.
In brief, Deadeye Dick is the story of Rudy Waltz, the son of prominent citizens of Midland City, an Ohio settlement populated by Middle Americans of the jauntily provincial variety often found in Vonnegut's work -- a city that has been destroyed, in his absence, by the accidental explosion of an American neutron bomb. Rudy is known as "Deadeye Dick" because as a mere boy he shot and killed a pregnant woman -- also accidentally -- while playing with one of the guns in his father's ample collection. The woman was the wife of the local newspaper editor, who responds to her death with an editorial reeking of selfless nobility:
"My wife has been killed by a machine which should never have come into the hands of any human being. It is called a firearm. It makes the blackest of all human wishes come true at once, at a distance: that something die.
"There is evil for you.
"We cannot get rid of mankind's fleetingly wicked wishes. We can get rid of the machines that make them come true.
"I give you a holy word: DISARM."
This, incredibly, is what passes for profundity in the pages of Deadeye Dick. And this: "That is my principal objection to life, I think: It is too easy, when alive, to make perfectly horrible mistakes." And this: "The bullet was a symbol, and nobody was ever hurt by a symbol. It was a farewell to my childhood and a confirmation of my manhood." And this: "I have seen unhappiness in my time."
Indeed he has. Vonnegut, as surely just about everyone now knows, was captured by the Germans in World War II and held prisoner at a slaughterhouse in Dresden, where he was witness to the wholly gratuitous destruction of that city by American bombers. This was a terrible and traumatic experience, and only the most resolute cynic could make light of it; throughout all of Vonnegut's fiction, Deadeye Dick certainly being no exception, it is the animating presence. But it is one thing to have had a searing experience and quite another to turn it into works of art. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Vonnegut has been praised more for what he underwent and the passionate feelings it produced than for what, in fact, he has actually made of it;;he has acquired his eminence on the cheap.
He has also acquired it by cloying cuteness of the most offensive variety. In Deadeye Dick as in several of his other books, he establishes a chummy relationship with the reader in which he goes so far as to "explain the main symbols in this book," displaying no self-mockery as he does so. He is given to infantile coinages; he describes "birth's being an opening peephole, and of death's being when that peephole closed again." He retails racial stereotypes that are no less distasteful for being well-intentioned: "And on cold days, and even on days that weren't all that cold, the rest of the servants, the yardman and the upstairs maid and so on, all black, would also crowd into the kitchen with the cook and me. They liked being crowded together. When they were little, they told me, they regularly slept in beds with a whole lot of brothers and sisters. That sounded like a lot of fun to me. It still sounds like a lot of fun to me."
That passage is echt Vonnegut. Enough said.