Walter F. Starbuck is an antihero, a minor, inconsequential figure caught up and manipulated by greater forces. While on the outskirts of great movements—the union strikes of the 1930’s, the Nuremberg Trials, the McCarthy era, Watergate—he never plays an active or important role. He ruefully acknowledges near the end of his memoirs, “The human condition in an exploding universe would not have been altered one iota if, rather than live as I have, I had done nothing but carry a rubber ice-cream cone from closet to closet for sixty years.” Starbuck always is a loser, a perpetual jailbird, even in a moral sense. He admits,The most embarrassing thing to me about this autobiography, surely, is its unbroken chain of proofs that I was never a serious man. I have been in a lot of trouble over the years, but that was all accidental. Never have I risked my life, or even my comfort, in the service of mankind. Shame on me.
Yet in his self-critical, wry, and humorous narration, Starbuck creates a sense of empathy in the reader. This man is a bumbler, but he is an entertaining, likable, and somewhat poignant bumbler.
Because the novel is his autobiography, Starbuck is the most fully developed character. Vonnegut is not interested in psychological realism in Jailbird. Most of the characters remain satiric caricatures of corrupt lawyers, unemployed Ph.D.’s, and hard-hearted businessmen. Cleverly drawn with vivid, idiosyncratic detail (one...
(The entire section is 598 words.)