Book Review: A Man Without A Country (2005)

I have been a Kurt Vonnegut fan for as long as I can remember. That doesn’t mean I think everything he’s written is golden. There are some stinkers. But when you learn that you share some of the same worldview as that writer, you ponder whether that commonality also impacted your assessment of his writing talents.

Vonnegut’s latest work, A Man Without A Country, makes clear that he believes the title is self-descriptive.

Vonnegut was one of this country’s leading novelists. I say “was” because he has not written a novel for years (with the exception of 1997’s forgettable Timequake) and does not plan another. A Man Without A Country is not a novel. It is a slim collection of essays, speeches and summaries of interviews from over the last several years. They are perhaps more accurately characterized as the musings of a man in his early 80s reflecting on the state of his homeland in the waning years of his life. It is not a pretty commentary.

It is apparent Vonnegut is not in today’s American mainstream, if he ever was. Vonnegut is a humanist. (“We humanists try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife”). Vonnegut is a socialist. (“Christianity and socialism alike, in fact, prescribe a society dedicated to the proposition that all men, women, and children are created equal and shall not starve.”) He is a self-described Luddite and holds a dim view of what humankind has done to the world and what it means for man’s future. He also is not afraid to speak his mind on any of these points despite the fact his positions will not make him a popular figure in today’s America.

Elements of Vonnegut’s humor appear in this collection. Yet his wit may be even more sardonic then ever, often requiring him to tell readers when he is being serious and when he is not. Yet even Vonnegut appears to realize his days of humor may be numbered.

The biggest truth to face now — what is probably making me unfunny now for the remainder of my life — is that I don’t think people give a damn whether the planet goes on or not. It seems to me as if everyone is living as members of Alcoholics Anonymous do, day by day. And a few more days will be enough. I know of very few people who are dreaming of a world for their grandchildren.

Along the same lines, in comments that tie in to headlines of the last month, he compares our dependence on fossil fuels to that of a drug addict.

When you got here, even when I got here, the industrialized world was already hopelessly hooked on fossil fuels, and very soon now there won’t be any more of those. Cold turkey.

Can I tell you the truth? I mean this isn’t like TV news, is it? Here’s what I think the truth is: We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial, about to face cold turkey.

This is one of several themes in the work. Another is his dim view of America’s current political administration (“unelected leaders” resulting from “a shamelessly rigged election in Florida”), its policies and the impact of those policies on how the world views us. In an article originally published in the August 2004 edition of In These Times, a Chicago-based socialist-oriented news magazine, Vonnegut contends that “we now present ourselves to the rest of the world as proud, grinning, jut-jawed, pitiless war-lovers with appalling powerful weaponry — who stand unopposed” and that “we are now as feared and hated all over the world was the Nazis once were.” Asserting that America’s actions and policies have dehumanized human beings around the world and our own soldiers, “I am a man without a country, except for the librarians and a Chicago paper called In These Times.”

In less caustic terms, he notes an interesting dichotomy in one of the positions taken by the religious right as they rose to political power. While many of those Christians are adamant about the Old Testament’s Ten Commandments being posted in schools and public places, they seem conspicuously silent about posting some of Christ’s words from the New Testament, such as Beatitudes like “Blessed are the meek,” “Blessed are the merciful” or “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

Regardless of what is hyperbole and what is not, many will take offense at what Vonnegut says in this work. Likewise, many will say he displays only disrespect and hatred for this country, hearkening back to the “love it or leave it” cry of the Vietnam era. Yet considering the fact Vonnegut is a World War II vet who fought for the freedoms he makes use of here, intolerance of and outrage over his political expression is what makes A Man Without A Country an appropriate title.

This slim volume may ultimately end up as a footnote in the Vonnegut canon and is probably only for the true Vonnegut aficionado. Yet it should not be taken as the prattling of a an aged author past his prime. To the contrary, it is a glimpse in his own words of a man who retains the courage and strength of his beliefs and is unafraid to tell us what he thinks and fears as he looks upon what has transpired over the course of his life and where his and subsequent generations have left both America and the world.

No matter how corrupt, greedy, and heartless our government, our corporations, our media, and our religious and charitable institutions may become, the music will still be wonderful.

Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without A Country

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