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Jailbird Summary

Kurt Vonnegut's Jailbird follows one Walter Starbuck, the son of a chauffeur who briefly attended Harvard but left to become a soldier in WWII. After a series of unsteady jobs, he becomes Nixon's "advisor for youth affairs." His minor involvement in the Watergate scandal under the Nixon administration left him in a minimum-security prison. The jailer of this prison is one Clyde Carter, who is a distant relative of Jimmy Carter. In jail, Starbuck also meets Kilgore Trout—a character inspired by Vonnegut himself, and featured in his other novels.

When Starbuck is released from jail, his wife has died, and so he goes to New York City in hopes of working as a bartender. While there, he meets former girlfriend Mary O'Looney, who appears to be an impoverished bag lady living under Grand Central Station. She turns out to be the mysterious and unrecognized co-owner of a powerful company, RAMJAC, of which she makes Starbuck vice president. And so, the end of the novel reveals the trajectory of Starbuck's life as one going from rags (as the son of a chauffeur) to riches (at Harvard) to rags (in jail) to riches again.


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

After a rambling autobiographical prologue relating the quasi-historical backgrounds of some of the characters, Jailbird presents the memoir of one Walter F. Starbuck, recently released from jail after serving time for a minor role in the Watergate conspiracy. The novel relates the events of Starbuck’s first two days of freedom, during which he goes to New York City and encounters two people from his past: Leland Clewes, whom he accidentally ruined in the 1940’s by testifying that Clewes was a former Communist, and Mary Kathleen O’Looney, now a bag lady but formerly his lover and coworker during his own days as a Communist in the 1930’s. Starbuck’s narrative is full of flashbacks, and by the time he encounters Clewes and Mary Kathleen, he has related his entire history in a somewhat jumbled fashion.

Starbuck, the son of European immigrants, is sent to Harvard by Alexander Hamilton McCone, his parents’ employer and a stammering recluse. McCone has avoided the world ever since he witnessed the massacre of his father’s striking factory employees. McCone wants Starbuck to become a gentleman, but, instead, as a college student Starbuck becomes a union sympathizer, the editor of The Bay State Progressive, and the lover of Mary Kathleen O’Looney. In the 1940’s, Starbuck gives up his radical affiliations to begin working in a series of bureaucratic government positions. In 1949, he tells a congressional committee, in reply to a question by Congressman Richard M. Nixon, that Leland Clewes was at one time a Communist, thus unwittingly ruining Clewes, who had never before been publicly associated with Communism.

Several years later, no one will give Starbuck a job because of this betrayal, and his wife must support him. When Nixon becomes president, however, he appoints Starbuck as his special...

(The entire section is 752 words.)