Plumbing the cultural void: Kurt Vonnegut returns in anger

With the 1997 publication of "Timequake," a sparse and elegiac novel of looping time and sentimental double-takes, American author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. at last called it quits. He'd labored on the manuscript for years, and - despite his best efforts - the work had spun utterly out of control, becoming a baggy, ungovernable monster that, in Vonnegut's own estimation, was unpublishable. So he carved out the good parts, stitched it all back together with autobiographical meditations on such sad daily news as the death of his brother, and floated his umpteenth book into the world, wiping his hands of the whole affair with something resembling resignation. He was done.

Trouble was, he kept living. Old habits die hard, like the filterless Pall Malls Vonnegut still sucks down one after the other ("A fire at one end and a fool at the other," he jokes). The author, now into his ninth decade, keeps finding things to talk about. And in his relationship with Seven Stories Press and the political rag In These Times, Vonnegut has discovered something of a second wind, as well as an audience still pleased to engage his wry, idiosyncratic style and off-kilter observations on the state of the world.

Anyone who has followed Vonnegut's career up to this point will find little in his latest offering, "A Man Without a Country," that truly surprises. The book, divided into short, chatty essays separated by Vonne-gut's childlike artwork, is largely a reiteration of the concerns and ideas that have defined his work - loneliness, the nature and uses of science, truth and falsity, democratic values, warfare, humanism, the deterioration of American culture, the cosmic and comical sadness of life - tinged now by a sort of autumnal melancholy and sense of loss.

"I used to be funny, and perhaps I'm not anymore," Vonnegut writes near the end of the book. "There may have been so many shocks and disappointments that the defense of humor no longer works. It may be that I have become rather grumpy because I've seen so many things that have offended me that I cannot deal in terms of laughter."

Grumpy. Like his own literary hero, Mark Twain, Vonnegut has found that, the older he's become, the more his lovely sense of humor has been eroded by anger at the recidivist stupidities and calamities of the "damned human race." For Vonnegut, the act of writing has always amounted to a search for equilibrium amid chaos. The tension driving "A Man Without a Country," then, is a kind of balancing act between his own corrosive outrage and a desire to eke out those rare moments of human kindness or dignity. In that sense, this book, for all its bad news, is oddly hopeful, an old man's testament to survival against overwhelmingly bad odds.

Vonnegut's trademark style - a beautifully honed, laconic minimal-ism that is deceptively easy to read - has become even more sparse and conversational over the years. Like Nietzsche, he drops bombs across the page, though his aphorisms lean more toward vaudeville than Vienna. Many of the book's pleasures are similar to sitting around listening to your favorite old cranky uncle whose stories are no less enjoyable for being totally familiar. There's comfort in familiarity.

Some of Vonnegut's most scalding criticism is reserved for the Bush administration, which he says took over the country "by means of the sleaziest, low-comedy, Keystone Cops-style coup d'├ętat imaginable." This, from an 82-year-old Indiana native whose family lost everything in the Great Depression, who served as a recon scout during World War II, was captured during the Battle of the Bulge and, while serving as a POW, witnessed the city of Dresden burnt to an ash heap by a U.S.-led bomb raid in "the largest massacre in European history." Let Bill O'Reilly attack those credentials.

The clear, uncringing language, as well as the fearlessness and faith with which Vonnegut wields it, is refreshing. That he can still shock says much about how far we've fled the actual ideals of patriotism. "George W. Bush has gathered around him upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography," Vonnegut writes, "plus no-so-closeted white supremacists, aka Christians, and plus, most frighteningly, psychopathic personalities, or PPs, the medical terms for smart, personable people who have no consciences."

And then comes the sad punchline, soothing as it turns the screws: "To say somebody is a PP is to make a perfectly respectable diagnosis, like saying he or she has appendicitis or athlete's foot." It almost seems a challenge, a dare to break the self-imposed taboos that have paralyzed free speech.

Vonnegut takes the time to celebrate as well as to savage. His love of volunteer firemen and translators is well documented; to that list he now adds an unlikely class of heroes. "The America I loved still exists at the front desk of our public libraries," he says, congratulating those folks who have "resisted anti-democratic bullies" in their efforts to retrieve the names of patrons who check out so-called suspicious titles.

He also writes of Ignaz Semmel-weis, the Budapest-born obstetrician who suggested in the mid-1800s that Viennese doctors who had been dissecting corpses wash their hands before examining impoverished pregnant women. "What could be more insulting?" Vonnegut writes, adding that Semmelweis, rather than being regarded a hero, was driven from Austria by the medical establishment and forced to work in a provincial hospital in Hungary. He eventually killed himself by intentionally slicing his hand with an infected scalpel.

The doctors who ignored Semmel-weis, Vonnegut says, reveal something important about themselves, "which we should duly note today."

"They aren't really interested in saving lives," Vonnegut writes. "If there's anything they hate, it's a wise human being. So be one anyway... Be honorable."

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