Kurt Vonnegut, at age sixty-one, may be among “America’s last generation of novelists,” as he himself said in Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage, his 1981 collection of autobiographical speeches, plays, and essays. Although he is a member of the World War II “family” of novelists, his work is unlike anyone’s before or since. With each book, he donates a memorable character, setting, or object that becomes part of the American language for many readers: Ilium, New York, in Player Piano (1952); Malachi Constant, the American millionaire, in The Sirens of Titan (1959); “The White Christian Minuteman” newspaper in Mother Night (1961); Bokonon in Cat’s Cradle (1963); the Rosewater Foundation in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: Or, Pearls Before Swine (1965); Billy Pilgrim and the marvelous planet Tralfamadore in Slaughterhouse-Five: Or, The Children’s Crusade (1969); the Nobel Prize-winning science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout in Breakfast of Champions: Or, Goodbye Blue Monday (1973), who also appears in Jailbird (1979) with Walter F. Starbuck; Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, King of Manhattan and tenant of the vacant Empire State Building in Slapstick (1976); and Rudy (Rudolph) Waltz and Midland City, Ohio, in Deadeye Dick.
These novels may be called postrealistic. They do not imitate life. They are metaphorical, larger than life in implication, blending fiction with fact, fantasy with reality. Jailbird’s Walter F. Starbuck complains that “nobody who is doing well in this economy ever even wonders what is really going on.” Presumably, those who purchase a $14.95 copy of Deadeye Dick qualify as “doing well.” If so, Vonnegut’s target is well-chosen for his message, which, as he has said in an interview, is to cause his readers “to stop hating and start thinking.” If Kilgore Trout is Vonnegut’s alter ego, his aim is “to be the eyes and ears and conscience of the Creator of the Universe.” To these ends, Vonnegut uses irony and satire to imply a larger vision of bleakness—bleakness beneath the veneer of material prosperity. Deadeye Dick forces readers to confront the emptiness, loneliness, and craziness of contemporary life.
As in previous novels, Vonnegut’s attention in Deadeye Dick focuses on the lack of “common decency” in American life. Even love does not accomplish what humaneness can for the quality of life. In his introduction to Slapstick, Vonnegut makes this point explicitly:Love is where you find it. I think it is foolish to go looking for it, and I think it can often be poisonous.
I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, “Please—a little less love, and a little more common decency.”
Such reasonable advice is almost impossible to accept. Hatefulness, cruelty, insistence on legal recourse, unswerving attention to “manners” and “good taste” all prevent one from acting with common decency. The search for such wisdom, difficult to acquire even in Rudy Waltz’s fifty years, is at the center of Deadeye Dick.
Rudy, like Billy of Slaughterhouse-Five, is one of Vonnegut’s bemused pilgrims, victimized and then rendered into a kind of recording intelligence—neutered, passive, alone. A chronological account misrepresents Vonnegut’s alogical, fragmented narrative, but the effort helps the reader to understand some of the author’s critical concerns. Still, the reader must, after disentangling the narrative, recall the discontinuity, essential to Vonnegut’s vision of contemporary American life. Rudy tells his story, and the reader learns that he was born in 1932 in Midland City, Ohio. He is fifty years old at the time of his story in 1982. At the age of twelve, he accidentally fires a bullet that hits a pregnant woman between the eyes while she is vacuuming a second-story room eight blocks away. The young “murderer” thereafter bears the nickname Deadeye Dick, and his life is complicated by many undeserved hardships.
Although Rudy does not go to jail, his father, Otto Waltz, a painter who does not paint but whose means of support comes from a large fortune from a chain of drugstores managed by relatives, does go to jail. Lawsuits by the dead woman’s family deplete the Waltz...
(The entire section is 1813 words.)