REVIEW: Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut

“This is just the dream of a Jailbird. It's not supposed to make sense.”

Jailbird unwinds like a tight ‘who-dunnit’ mystery. This is perhaps its greatest metaphor as it seems to deal often with the notions of “how, exactly, did we end up in a world like this?” and “who, exactly, is to blame?” The world has been comfortably run by “Harvard men” for some time now, supposedly the best and brightest the world has to offer, filtered through the greatest education available on Earth. So why is it that humanity, and more particularly the USA, has done so poorly under such leadership?

Walter F. Starbuck, the story’s defeated protagonist, is a man who has always been at the wrong place at the wrong time. He was an idealistic youth from an immigrant family who had the “good fortune” to grow up in the household of a millionaire. He is promised a Harvard education as a child if he simply plays daily games of chess with his millionaire benefactor. This seemed like the best deal one could get in this life, so he readily obliges. What follows is a lifetime replaced by a (black) comedy of errors. Starbuck becomes a stand-in for anyone who hopes to change the world through the application of a liberal arts education. Though humble in action and kind of heart (even if it is missing), Starbuck is “always in the way and helpless”, whether he’s acting as special advisor to the President on Youth Affairs, helping his wife with their interior decorating business, or just trying to be a father to his son, who has disowned him. Society seems to have lost its heart, and anyone who refuses to play along and forsake it’s needs will end up just like Starbuck: trampled, heartbroken, and alone.

Jailbird is very much a lament for a time when “There was nothing that a humanist couldn’t supervise” and it is the loss of these ‘humanists’ in the public sphere that has turned society into a cold and ruthless machine. The genius of generations of Harvard Men have created a world that operates like a factory floor. There is no place for people who live in the margins between black and white. Perhaps the saddest thing about this, though, is that society has only recently become this way. There was a time when Harvard Men discussed great ideas and used these discussions to better the living conditions of the American People (men like Powers Hapgood and Ken Whistler), but somewhere along the way, since WWII, Harvard Men stopped thinking about people and started thinking about money and power. The root of poor Starbuck’s disillusionment is that he went to Harvard with the aspirations of becoming “a public servant, an employee rather than an elected official” only to find that ‘the Public’ has become a voiceless entity, replaced by corporate lawyers and checkbooks.

So large has the beast become, and unwieldy, that even well-intentioned, intelligent people cannot influence the ever-onward march of progress. Even Mrs. Jack Graham, with all her money and corporate ownership, cannot help the Public in the end. It is as if society itself is the new Frankenstein’s monster; those people responsible for creating it are in just as much danger as everybody else. People aren’t trying to kidnap Mrs. Jack Graham so that they can talk her in to doing their bidding, they just want to chop off her hands so that they can call the shots themselves. The ultimate dichotomy has now become identity-less power vs power-less idenity. How can something that lacks identity be confronted, and how can something that lacks power ever hope to label the powerful? The ‘expectation of progress’ idea has become a form of misused technology, a train run off its tracks with an existential atom bomb on-board. We’ve engineered plenty of factories to produce such devices but have precious few navigators to decide where the trains should go.

Vonnegut has never been one for linear story-telling, a trope used masterfully here, allowing him to set the tone with a smoking gun and then letting that uneasy feeling hang and circulate throughout the pages of his book. What exactly was the crime, though? Is it possible to hold one person, or even several people, responsible for what is happening? More importantly, if you could, would you? Should you? At its root, Jailbird is a story about cultural values changing in America. This, in and of itself, is not necessarily bad, but the fact that the common man no longer has a say in this discussion should be truly horrifying. Man has become alienated from the society he lives in, more sheep than shepherd now, and can find no way to get back in. Education has created monsters, government has created special jails just for its leaders, and man has developed an inability to create anything of use. All things are gobbled up by the forever-hungry juggernaut known as politics, and politics is little more than an attempt to explain power

Vonnegut strongly believed that all of man’s unhappiness in this life can be traced to feelings of loneliness and that the only place that a man could be truly happy is within a community of shared values and interests. If a man feels he does not have such a group, he is likely to act in strange and irrational ways. This, ultimately, is the only explanation he can offer as to why the world is the way it is today. To say Jailbird is Vonnegut’s “Watergate” novel, or that it is about labor movements, or capitalism vs. communism, is to miss the forest for the trees. This is a novel about humanity, the abstract noun, and its rapid disappearance from the world today. “Never have I risked my life, or even my comfort, in the service of mankind.” Starbuck laments early on, “Shame on me.” Later, as Starbuck’s memoir winds to an end, he confesses that “We are here for no purpose, unless we can invent one. Of that I am sure.” I do not think it presumptuous to think that Vonnegut had a perfectly good purpose to suggest to anyone who had trouble inventing one of their own: “Be kind”

Why? “The Sermon on the Mount, sir.”

BONUS: The audiobook version (read by Richard Ferrone) is quite excellent.

Book cover photo from Amazon

Book cover photo from Amazon