More than five years ago, an aging Kurt Vonnegut promised to never write again. Now, at the age of 82, this classic American voice has reneged on his promise and come back from retirement. His new collection of essays, “Man without a Country,” leaves little question as to why he felt compelled to address his American audience once again. Famous for such works as “Cat’s Cradle,” “Breakfast of Champions” and “Slaughterhouse Five,” Vonnegut has been classified as a writer of science fiction. This new work, spiced with everything from six-inch, mauve-colored Martians, that piss gasoline and shit uranium, to Kilgore Trout (Vonnegut’s alter-ego, the never appreciated and perpetually out of print Sci-Fi writer) remains true to his individual style. But also turns his attention to realms of reality not typically associated with the writer, and heavily addresses the almost unimaginable state of present-day America. Vonnegut brings his humanistic perspective to such issues as our unbelievable dependence on fossil fuels, which he points out, is no more than 200 years old in its development, and our currently increasing imperialistic approach to foreign relations.
As a modern writer and thinker, Vonnegut sees the value of those who have come before him, and often harkens back to his “distinct betters,” as he likes to call them. He quotes from such well-known thinkers as Abraham Lincoln, Jesus Christ, the socialists Eugene Debs and Karl Marx and fellow writers Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain and Albert Camus. He muses at how selective most Americans are in repeating, and insisting on the truthfulness, of only a portion of what each of these great minds thought. Why is it, Vonnegut wonders, that bible-toting Christians from the far-right are not performing mass demonstrations of swollen-eyed and red-faced believers to have the words “Blessed are the meek … Blessed are the merciful … (and) Blessed are the peacemakers,” from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, carved in stone on local and state government grounds? “Not exactly planks of the Republican platform,” he explains. An amazingly relevant quote that Vonnegut brings to light, from another of the world’s great minds, comes from the pen of then-congressman Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln wrote, of the Mexican American War (and of then-president James K. Polk): “Trusting to escape scrutiny, by fixing the public gaze upon the exceeding brightness of military glory, that attractive rainbow that rises in showers of blood … he plunged into war.” Shock and awe you say? Shock and awe, indeed.
He also spends a significant amount of time explaining the importance of humor to being human. Voltaire, he writes, showed us in his theater of cruelty, just how entertaining all the terrible things about being human really are. “Any subject is subject to laughter,” says Vonnegut, “and I suppose there was laughter of a very ghastly kind by the victims of Auschwitz …” – just as there is humor of a very depressing sort in our electing a C-student to the most powerful post in the land, and that of a very ugly kind when our leaders begin acting like crazed addicts, trying to scrape together the last of the petroleum we are so hopelessly addicted to. Most importantly however, we should know that this book is not just another denunciation of an unelected leader, or a string of complaints about an increasingly renegade White House, but rather a series of thoughts on humankind, and what has brought us to our present condition.
Through his one-of-a-kind humor and humanism, Vonnegut brings us another classic work that shows the true human spirit to be alive and thriving in our mixed-up world. Samuel D. Massa, a constant traveler and new to the area, received his English literature degree from Michigan State University with a double minor in religious studies and history. Massa works at Weber’s Books and Drawings in Breckenridge where this title can be found.
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