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BOOKS IN THE MIRROR: Vonnegut Pushes Wrong Buttons: Kurt Vonnegut, MAN WITHOUT A COUNTRY, Seven Stories Press, 09/05

Kurt Vonnegut was robbed. The Nobel Prize in Literature was in his grasp and ready for the taking, if only he hadn’t made a fatal flaw in his former life as a car salesman. He’s 82 years old and mad as hell. Is he not gonna take it anymore? Yes…and no. It’s out of his hands, he claims, quoting an “old Norwegian proverb: ‘Swedes have short dicks but long memories.”

In the rambling, occasionally funny Man Without A Country, Vonnegut presents a collection of essays ranging from his early days as a struggling writer to the realities of married life. When he enters the political realm, his frustration verging on tearful despair over the depletion of our natural resources doesn’t quite affect the reader the way Vonnegut intends.

Vonnegut’s novels are witty arguments with the reader – conversations about weighty issues couched in whimsical science fiction and perfect use of irony. The essays in this book are not on par with his novels. It is telling that he mentions he’s currently working on a novel and unfortunately suffering from ferocious writer’s block. Instead of placing wit and irony in the foreground and human drama in the background the way he did in Slaughter-house Five and Cat’s Cradle, he reverses his usual style, bringing emotions front and center. He pulls back the curtain to reveal how sad and dejected he is at America’s current political climate.

Readers will enjoy the autobiographical essays. He explains how he became a science fiction writer in an amusing account of how his first novel was misinterpreted as science fiction instead of science fact. In an essay on creative writing, he includes his trademark hand-drawn diagrams to explain how Shakespeare was a terrible storyteller. Another essay, “I Have Been Called a Luddite,” is a hilarious take on the “damn fool computer.” Vonnegut takes the reader in hand on a tour of his day without a computer, showing, us how lovely it is to believe that “we are here on Earth to fart around.” In his essay on sex and relationships, he artfully demonstrates how all marriage problems could be paradoxically solved by significantly larger extended families.

Vonnegut’s series of political essays, however, drown his attempts at cogent argument in emotion. He rages against pollution and our blind acceptance of the current administration. In the essay “A Sappy Woman from Ypsilanti,” he answers readers’ letters to his In These Times column. One of his readers defends preemptive action in Iraq as a welcome alternative to “being little children that sit in fear and just wait [for the next 9/11].” Vonnegut replies: “Please, for the sake of us all, get a shotgun…and right there in your own neighborhood blow off the heads of people…who may be armed.” Vonnegut is angry at Americans in favor of the war, but he’s even angrier at and frustrated with so-called average Americans, whom he considers tragically apathetic.

“We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial,” he says. “And like so many addicts about to face cold turkey, our leaders are now committing violent crimes to get what little is left of what we’re hooked on.” He cannot understand why Americans are not rising up and taking back the country the book’s title claims he does not posses anymore, yet his most powerful political essay, “Strange Weather Lately,” is not here.

The majority of these essays were previously published in In These Times magazine. In the copyright section, the publisher notes “the Vonnegut pieces became the most visited parts of the In These Times website in the history of that publication.” Indeed, the link to his May 2003 essay “Strange Weather Lately” was forwarded from person to person over the Internet for about a year. Vonnegut’s intelligent, biting essay on how the current administration sold the Iraq war to the American people touched a raw nerve in 2003, and it still does today. People were stirred into action. They began to wake up to the political realities around them. The absence of “Strange Weather Lately” from Man Without A Country makes no sense at all.Readers who enjoyed “Strange Weather Lately” will expect the same masterful level of satire and craft in Man Without A Country’s political essays. Sadly, they will be disappointed. When Vonnegut gripes, “The good Earth – we could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap and lazy,” he does not engage the reader’s imagination, but merely induces vague feelings of guilt, and, surprisingly for a Vonnegut piece, a strong desire in the reader to put the book down.

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