Kilgore Trout Goes to Harvard
Jailbird By Kurt Vonnegut Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, $9.95
KILGORE TROUT IS BACK. He's a little older and a little more tired, but he's survived and is among us once again.
Kurt Vonnegut's perennial semi-autobiographical protagonist returns this time as Walter F. Starbuck, and he is a Harvard man. He is so much a Harvard man, in fact, that were Vonnegut less obvious in writing his titles this book might well be called Kilgore Trout Goes to Harvard. Vonnegut's hero still peacefully accepts life's highs and lows, but Harvard has changed him: the lows seem a little lower, the highs a little higher, and the accepting a little harder.
Both types of Vonnegut fans--the groupies who thrive on Vonnegut's simplistic reductions of life's problems into phrases like "So it goes," and those who go for his one-of-a-kind style and sarcastic commentary on life in the U.S.--will come away from Jailbird more than satisfied. And if the reader hails from within Harvard's ivy-covered walls, the sense of fulfillment will no doubt prove even more complete--Jailbird is not just another of the current rash of "life after Harvard" novels. Instead, it clearly portrays the vast dichotomy between the way the world views Harvard graduates and the way Harvard graduates view themselves. "Harvard," as Vonnegut says plainly, "is all through this book."
To be fair, Vonnegut overdoes it at times. Walter Starbuck, a typical Vonnegut face-in-the-crowd personality, has gone to Harvard in the 1930s largely because of family connections with a Harvard man. His most vivid memories are of Harvard, and everyone he meets has had a memorably bad experience with a Harvard graduate. Harvard has given Starbuck a one-way ticket to the top, but it hasn't put out the net to catch him when he falls. And he does fall, of course, only to be thrust on the escalator again by the omnipresent invisible hand that is the ghost of Harvard past.
Nonetheless, Vonnegut's messages emerge from beneath the overplayed Harvard motif and a typically bizarre plot. Starbuck's biggest claim to fame, for example, amounts to a piddling job in the Nixon administration as the President's Special Advisor on Youth Affairs. His office, hidden in the dank basement of the White House, becomes the resting place for large sums of illicit Watergate pay-off money, and when the break-in and cover-up arrests are made, he is duly escorted to a minimum-security prison in Georgia--undergoing the pains of prison minus the Watergate infamy.
Writing in the first person, Starbuck tells us a story that is a pitifully amusing parody of the John Dean-H.R. Haldeman "Let's Make Money Off of Watergate" autobiographies. And somehow, Vonnegut manages to work in some particularly cogent statements about the mistreatment of Sacco and Vanzetti and the history and problems of the twentieth-century labor movement in general.
Like most of Vonnegut's Kilgore Trout permutations, Walter Starbuck wants nothing more than to live simply in a small house with a nice wife and some respectful children. What thwarts his dreams, as usual, is America's tangled red-tape bureaucracy and cut-throat competition, epitomized in Jailbird by the RAMJAC corporation, a sprawling conglomerate that controls almost all of the world's large companies.
The big honcho controlling RAMJAC is a shopping bag lady--she is too important to live luxuriously in public--who carries RAMJAC's important documents in the toes of her purple sneakers. She is, of course, from Cambridge, Mass. At the end of the novel, Walter finds himself in a legal mess concerning RAMJAC which will land him in jail once again. Yet, like all Vonnegut heroes, he still believes, like the rest of us, "that peace and plenty and happiness can be worked out some way. I am a fool."
With Jailbird Vonnegut finally succeeeds in meshing the best elements of his previous novels. Starbuck's screwed-up, out-of-control life is grotesquely fictitious, yes; but Vonnegut makes it clear that there, but for the obvious absurdity of the storyline, go we. In Jailbird, Vonnegut's tenth novel, Kilgore Trout a.k.a. Starbuck goes beyond and back-he visits the depths of Harvardiana and survives. The story is inspirational, the Vonnegutisms ("Small world") are typically comforting, and his black humor is as sordid as ever. Jailbird will make you eager for more Vonnegut, and with any luck, Kilgore Trout will be back again