Jul 20, Lyn rated it really liked it Not one of the better known Vonnegut novels, and significantly different than most of his other collection. This is perhaps his most serious work. Jailbird lacks the absurdist bent characterized by so much of his other satire, and is conspicuously somber throughout most of the book, though it still features Vonneguts fast style and light approach. This might also be his most politically dogmatic work, eschewing his ubiquitous humor and playful wisdom with a staid, thoughtful passion for rights Not one of the better known Vonnegut novels, and significantly different than most of his other collection.
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It is the Sermon on the Mount. Walter F. Starbuck is asked by Richard M. Nixon at a Congressional hearing in why, "as the son of immigrants who have been treated so well by Americans, as a man who had been treated like a son and been sent to Harvard by an American capitalist," he had been so ungrateful to the American economic system as to join the Communist Party.
Starbuck replies: "Why? The Sermon on the Mount, sir. Cohn--these are the obsessions of "Jailbird," a fable of evil and inadvertence. Strong stuff, Starbuck would say, because strong stuff is the latest in a long line of Vonnegut semaphores, verbal kiss-offs: so it goes, hiho, I had to laugh, small world, strong stuff. What has this stuff to do with Starbuck or the Sermon on the Mount? Because he plays chess with the millionaire, the millionaire sends him to Harvard, where he has an affair with a radical young Irishwoman and joins the Communist Party.
He quits the party on the occasion of the Nazi-Stalin pact. He returns to Washington to betray, by accident, a friend. Years of joblessness follow until Mr.
Nixon makes him his special adviser on "youth affairs. Let out in , he arrives in New York and falls into the clutches of a conglomerate that seems to own most of the world. Starbuck is clearly one of those characters to whom history is always happening like an accident.
At least you tried to believe what the people with hearts believed--so you were a good man just he same.
Not once in "Jailbird" does Mr. Vonnegut nod off, go vague. His people bite into their lives. Kindnesses, as inexplicable as history, are collected, like saving remnants. New York, with catacombs under Grand Central Terminal and harps on top of the Chrysler Building, is wonderfully evoked.
The prose has sinew. Sarah whispered that he ate as though his meal were a royal flush. Shall they, indeed? Vonnegut has his doubts.
It is the fashion these days for young academics, fresh from bravely grappling with the archetypes of modernism at a graduate seminar, to dismiss Mr. Vonnegut as simplistic. He is insufficiently obscure; he is not loud enough about the ambiguities.
Well, as he would say, listen. The simple--courtesy and decency--is hardest. In "The Sirens of Titan," the problem was how to cause "less rather than more pain," how to "love whoever is around to be loved. Rosewater" asked, "How to love people who have no use? One returns in "Jailbird," a man who writes science fiction novels under the name of, naturally, Kilgore Trout, who is in jail, naturally, for treason.
These days, the Sermon on the Mount is treason. Vonnegut has exactly what Constant pined for in "Sirens": "a single message that was insufficiently dignified and important to merit his carrying it between two points. Their magic would become hers.
Jailbird - Kurt Vonnegut
Jailbird by Vonnegut, First Edition
Kurt Vonnegut's Palm Sunday, Player Piano and Jailbird
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