Kurt Vonnegut is considered to be one of the great American writers. He’s known for his dark humor and quick wit. Books like Slaughterhouse- Five, Breakfast of Champions and Cat’s Cradle are giants in the western literary canon. Vonnegut is considered to be one of America’s great social commentators, always willing to call us out on what we’re doing wrong. An unapologetic socialist, Vonnegut uses his books as a platform to spread his message.
In a lesser known work, Jailbird, he attacks both capitalism and the American political system, making it a nice read for this election cycle. The novel follows Walter F. Starbuck, Harvard man and White House staffer who went to jail for taking part in the Watergate scandal. The book starts the day he gets out of jail and retraces how he got there and what he did immediately after. His office was used to hide a million dollars. As the investigator put it, “Whose dumb fucking idea was it to bring this shit to the White House” (Vonnegut 97).
Jailbird, while not as strong as many of his other novels, is your typical Vonnegut: crude, critical and laid back. However, the current political climate in America makes Jailbird extremely relevant.
Starbuck is the definition of honest politician. He went into public service because he saw that as the greatest thing a man can do to serve others. He was continuously singled out and vilified by both the public and his colleagues for being a communist. Throughout the novel, he frequently sights the injustice of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial. He even comments the only reason Richard Nixon became president was for going after communism.
Jailbird is all about how the government robs and cheats hardworking people, that the system will never work in our favor. As Vonnegut puts it, “I am now moved to suppose, with my primitive understanding of economics, that every successful government is of necessity a Ponzi scheme” (Vonnegut 95). Today, the government seems to be failing the people more and more, never working in our favor. We don’t trust our politicians and are always looking for someone to break the political mold. This makes Jailbird more timely than ever. It is, in essence, a 300-page rant of all our frustrations.
Vonnegut’s Jailbird is a reminder of why he’s such a good writer. He is able to bottle our fears and hopes while making us laugh in the process. He’s a true man of the people with a tremendous literary gift. I love Kurt Vonnegut; he’s probably my favorite writer. I read everything by him I can get my hands on. All of his books are interconnected with characters you love popping up in each one. Reading his books are like doing a puzzle without the picture on the box to guide you. For that reason, if you haven’t read a Vonnegut before, I highly suggest you don’t start with Jailbird. Start with Cat’s Cradle and go from there. Believe me, you’ll be grateful for it.
What makes Jailbird different from his other books is that Starbuck doesn’t lose hope for a better world. He believes that we can still achieve a world where the government works for everyone. Usually, Vonnegut is very nihilistic. Starbuck even says that he “still believes that peace and plenty and happiness can be worked out some way. I am a fool” (Vonnegut). He knows the government will probably never change, but still believes that it can.
I think we can all benefit from a little bit of Starbuck’s hope. It may get us through Nov. 8 in one piece, and of sound mind.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Daniele Prati’s Flickr account.
Sara Karlovitch is a freshman journalism and government and politics major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.