Skip to main content

Look at the Birdie by Kurt Vonnegut

The end is only the beginning.
So it goes. 
When Kurt Vonnegut died in 2007 I was bereft; having nothing new by Kurt Vonnegut to read was something that I felt unprepared to face and I didn't know what to do about it. Possessed by my habitual fanaticism (tempered only by financial constraint and - now - issues of logistics) I had already scooped up as much of his work as I could find and had only one or two left to read. This included a first edition paperback of Between Time and Timbuktu, a made-for-TV film script published in 1972 based on several of Vonnegut's shorter pieces, and another first ed. hard back of Sun Moon Star, ostensibly a re-telling of the nativity story as inspired by the simple drawings of Ivan Chermayeff. Those I had yet to read were going to have to be strictly rationed, drip fed over the course of years so as not to drain the source dry prematurely. What would happen when all was read? 

It would now seem there are more posthumous collections of previously "unpublished" work than I could have imagined were possible. At the time you can understand why I was a little anxious and then relieved when Look At The Birdie was announced. A final, joyful dribble of sustenance! Of course, the question I should have asked myself (which I have since done seeing as how everyone is publishing previously unreleased works by Kurt Vonnegut Jnr - including his columns from the Cornell Sun...) was why? Why didn't Vonnegut publish these stories before he died? Did he run out of time? Was it in his "to do" list but too far down (after smoking himself to death) to actually get done? Or, as a relentless reviser of his own work, was this stuff simply not good enough to pass the censor? I suspect the latter. 

What we have here is a collection with all the trademark Vonnegut-ness - the narrative driving ever onwards, the darkly comic pseudo-misanthropic humanism, the twist at the end - and it is a collection that adds to the oeuvre rather than detracts from it.  However, it's not quite up to ...Monkey House or even Wampeters... Characters are clear, situations defined, stories sharp-ish for the most part, but when I think of Breakfast of Champions or, more poignantly, Mother Night and compare the emotional resonance and the lasting after effects, ...Birdie just doesn't come close. Without the book at hand I struggle to remember even the best of the crop, rather recalling the oddest or most discordant (a hypnotist and a tower ballroom full of mirrors standing out as an exemplar). I'm not upset, just disappointed.

Jesus was a star. Joseph might
have been a triangle.
As a collector with the trembling panic of an OCD hoarder, I would have bought this even if it had Harold Bloom saying "Shit, don't buy!" on the cover. I'm not ashamed to say I'm still in the market for a DVD copy of Breakfast of Champions starring Bruce Willis, something I believe Kurt wished had never seen the light of day. Where a bright editor with an eye for something completely worthwhile might pull from obscurity a forgotten manuscript which instantly changes the literary marketplace, I can see the merits of publishing posthumously that which an author did not believe to be ready or even good enough. What disturbs me is when the hack trolls go trawling through the desk drawers and dusty corners of the offices of dead writers for anything they can bind and flog to an already bloated market, often "finding" utterly irrelevant and sometimes irreverent rubbish which was destined for the recycling. I appreciate the hypocrisy in what I'm saying so please don't pick me up on it. I am ashamed to be fuelling said market. But it's often the case that the relative merit of a work is not really exposed until it's been bought and read. 

That's better.
Now, I'm not saying this collection is that bad. It certainly isn't, and is in fact quite good! As a starter for 10 it would be a fine introduction to the work of a rather excellent American author, but it is not the polished prose I've come to expect, and that is rather my fault. Previous rant notwithstanding, I'm a victim of my own expectations, so lah-de-dah etc. and so on. In future I must consider context as well as content.

I should write that down somewhere so I don't forget it.

In a previous life I employed discreet signage in my bookshop extolling the virtues of an under appreciated literary star, and even on this review, over-use of italics also notwithstanding, I am proud to pronounce that the world should read more Vonnegut, even if it's this one. Just go out and buy a copy of Mother Night after.

Comments

How's about that then?

Apochryphal Tales by Karel Čapek

Many (many) years ago, when I first read War With The Newts, after scouring the Waterstones' internal database (whimsically named Ibid, and from which one could print the details of books onto the till roll in light- and so it seems, time-sensitive purple ink which, on the inches thick ream of leaves I printed for future perusal, faded within a few months rendering my catalogued wish list so much locker mulch) for authors with a suitably Czech-sounding name, having put away an entrée of my first slim Hrabal, a palate-cleansing Kundera and in need of a meaty Moravian main course, I think I might have completely and totally missed just how funny it was, bloated as I was by the doughy and Victorian-sounding translation and the rather unlikely ideation of the future political terroir of mankind and their unusual amphibian slaves and, latterly, sappers, the newts.

How's that for a sentence David Foster Wallace? INTERROBANG.

Well, there's no chance that Čapek's typically Czech…

Free Fall In Crimson by John D. MacDonald

Trav is back, still grieving the loss of some chickadee or other whose death almost knocked him off his game, but not too shook up to set himself up with a few more lucky lovelies whilst tripping his way through another overly complicated and rather sordidly underwhelming plot. This time, some bikers are making dirty movies with minors on the set of a future classic hot-air-balloon movie. Travis falls into the action because a rich old geyser carks it in unusual circumstances and it affects the trust fund of a former marina-mate. And hirsute intellectual Meyer wets his pants towards the end. 

You may sense a fatigued, sardonic note in my precis. It's not that I don't still love John D., it's just that after embarking on the long game that is reading the entire Travis McGee oeuvre, I'm approaching the end and it feels long overdue. It's been fun, it's been enlightening, but it's also been a schlep. With the realisation I might now have fewer years left to me …

The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray

Fup by Jim Dodge

If there was a comfort-food version of a book for me, then this would be it. It's funny, touching, humanistic, and features so many quotable quotes that its trim 120 pages could be represented in its entirety on some such authors' quotations page.

We're introduced to Tiny on the occasion of his mother's death, lured into a treacherously fatal situation by, of all things, a duck, while her 4-year-old son sleeps in the car where he wakes to a terrifying solitude. Meanwhile, we're treated to a potted but entertaining history of Granddaddy Jake, Tiny's grandfather, into whose care by fair means or foul (no pun intended) he is finally placed. But the titular Fup duck comes along only once Tiny is fully grown (and how!). A lost and lonely duckling, much like Tiny, she's discovered shivering in a freshly dug post hole, which betrays the attention paid to it by Tiny's nemesis, a wild hog called Lockjaw, who enjoys tearing up Tiny's fences just as much as he …