Kurt Vonnegut | Critical Review by Valentine Cunningham

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Kurt Vonnegut.
This section contains 657 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Valentine Cunningham

Critical Review by Valentine Cunningham

SOURCE: "So It Still Goes with the Sermonettist," in Observer Review, December 22, 1991, p. 43.

In the following review of Fates Worse than Death, Cunningham praises Vonnegut's wit in addressing the problems of modern American society.

Kurt Vonnegut is the conscience of Middle America. The fates picked out an ordinary GI kid prisoner-of-war, one of us, one man out of the whole US, to endure and miraculously survive the fire-bombing of Dresden. Thus Vonnegut became a unique witness against the human awfulness Dresden symbolised.

He chose to do his testifying by playing Huck Finn, a Holy Fool, a zany and practical joker with a canny touch for textual transgression—mixing up the genres, defying distinctions between high and low modes, straight fic and Sci Fi, novels and sermons. No wonder he became the preacher of post-Holocaust righteousness Americans hate to love and love to hate. They ban his books from schools, and invite him to address graduation ceremonies.

Fates Worse Than Death is the latest volume of his cunning, rambling, edgy sermonettes, his wry, moral bomblets chucked night after night from podium and pulpit into gatherings of shrinks and museologists, Anglicans, architects, MIT graduands and the like. Rumours that the old boy was losing his knack of drilling straight into the nerve of western complacency can, on the evidence of this marvellously tetchy wit, be discounted.

Historians of American puritanism will, of course, recognise the old-fashioned, prophetic, conversionist drift. And Vonnegut devotees will be very familiar with the potent combination of freethinking and Sermon on the Mount that energises his assaults on modern Beelzebub in his native land: censors of books, Neo-Conservatives, tele-evangelists, Henry Kissinger the carpet-bomber of Hanoi, Ronnie Reagan the drowsy monger of easy showbiz wars and killer of babies (Gadaffi's baby in particular), Charlton Heston the spokesperson of the National Rifle Association, and heroic bomber pilots who drop their loads of death and scoot away. Infantry-man Vonnegut never forgets that George Bush was an airforce flyer.

Familiarity with Vonnegut's drives and aims does not blunt the force of his barbed pieties. Not least because these are sustained by a very moving family pietas and a fine staunchness towards old army buddies and fellow-writers in the cause. Vonnegut's wonderfully looping celebration of his German clan's summers at Maxincuchee Lake makes an extraordinarily Chekhovian and Updike-like narrative, a short-story in effect, about the gains and losses of kinship, and the powers of affection and guilt as they run through families.

It sounds a kind of keynote within this artfully ragged, carefully intermittent personal record, so haunted by a mad and suicidal mother, a sad architect father frustrated by the Depression, a son who went temporarily insane and a wife who died, and by the need to make replacement communities of like minds contra mundum, in solidarity with his new Vietnam-photographer wife, with his old army friend from Dresden days, the recently dead Bernard V. O'Hare, even with fellow-clarinetist Benny Goodman.

'I used to play a little licorice-stick myself,' Vonnegut keeps telling us he once told Benny Goodman. The jesting self-send-up is usual, and so is the well-rehearsed one-liner. For this is a preacher who offers his truths in punch-lines, his rebukes by motto. And the throw-away lines have become the grimmer the more our culture has become throw-away.

'So it goes', the shrugging acceptance of Apocalypse Then in Slaughterhouse-Five has been replaced by 'What a Mess'—an awful truth about global auto destructiveness, our un-green Apocalypse Now, the terrible suicidal moment when we all drink the Kool-Aid laced with cyanide.

'Imagine being American', Vonnegut invites us—and worse, think of being not liked by Walter Cronkite, the Man Most Americans Trust. Worse still, imagine being Huck Finn with nowhere to go at the end of your story, no clean territories to 'light out to', no innocent geography left.

The way Vonnegut imagines the plight is American all right, but it's a dilemma he makes you feel the whole world had better attend to, or else.

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This section contains 657 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Valentine Cunningham
Literature Criticism Series
Critical Review by Valentine Cunningham from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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