Kurt Vonnegut's Armageddon Bookend Begin-Again

on Wednesday, October 10, 2012
If the five or so books that have been published since he kicked the bucket are anything to go by, Kurt Vonnegut's death in 2007 was only a minor inconvenience. While other dead writers have been happy to rest on their celestial laurels, the great crackpot-with-a-conscience has managed to remain timely, exciting and very, very funny.

Now Vanguard Press has brought us a glorious little tome that bookends his career and proves that from beginning to end he was almost without peer. We Are What We Pretend To Be contains two previously unpublished short works: Vonnegut's first novella that was turned down for publication in 1950, and the first few chapters of a novel he was working on at the time of his death.

The novella, Basic Training, tells the story of Haley Brandon, a young man sent to work on the decaying farm owned by his uncle, an authoritarian ex-army man known only as The General. The farm is run like a training camp, heavily regimented and unforgivingly brutal. Haley falls in with The General's daughters and another farmhand, Mr. Banghart who, it soon becomes clear, is absolutely nuts. When Haley and the farmhand accidentally blow up The General's car, they flee to the city where things take a turn for the worse. Banghart finally loses it, kills someone, and swears to return to the farm to kill The General. Haley runs back to try to stop him. What follows is a tense, tautly rendered game of cat and mouse. Don't be fooled, however, into thinking that Basic Training is some kind of thriller. It may be thrilling, but it is a dark, bleak tale of desperation that unsettles just as much as it excites. Even the love story subplot is cold and unrequited.

Many Vonnegut devotees will be surprised by Basic Training. Surprised that it was written by Vonnegut at all - it shares a lot more with the harsh realism of Steinbeck, or even Cormac McCarthy, than anything else he went on to write. Surprised with the quality of the writing so early in his career. But, most of all, surprised that it was turned down for publication. Even putting my Vonnegut sycophancy aside, it is one of the best short works that I have ever read. The redemptive ending might be a little clumsy, but it does not diminish the work as a whole. Any author would be happy to have just written this and then been hit by a train.

Fans will be a lot more familiar with the vibe of the novel-in-progress If God Were Alive Today. It is a fun park ride of linguistic verve, full of wacky gags and cultural jabs, with Vonnegut using his washed-up comedian protagonist Gil Berman as a conduit to stick it to pretty much anything he goddamned wants to. If God Were Alive Today is presented here as a novella, but it is clearly unfinished and no doubt would have been a great full length novel had Vonnegut lived a bit longer. Berman's total meltdown and pathetic attempts to get his life back on track must have really resonated with a writer feeling his own physical decline and i would have loved to see how Vonnegut resolved it. It is sad, it is angry and it is funny (though often in an embarrassing Dad joke kind of way). In other words, it is crazy Kurt as his absolute best.


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