(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

The world of a Kurt Vonnegut novel is filled with outrageous coincidences, strange and eccentric people, bizarre plot twists, and intimations of complexities behind seemingly innocent events. Jailbird is no exception; here, Walter F. Starbuck, the least important of the convicted Watergate coconspirators, emerges from jail and travels to New York, only to run into Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a former girl friend who now appears to be a New York bag lady. Instead, she turns out to be the head of a major international corporation disguised as a bag lady to avoid being killed by the enemies of the corporation. She eventually makes Starbuck a vice-president of the corporation, along with everyone from a chauffeur to a down-on-his-luck bartender who has befriended Starbuck since he left jail.

That is only part of the story. Other elements include science fiction tales written by a character from other Vonnegut novels, one Kilgore Trout, who in this incarnation turns out to be Bob Fender, a prisoner in the jail occupied by Starbuck for his Watergate crimes. Their jailer is Clyde Carter, a distant relative of, and dead ringer for, Jimmy Carter, now President of the United States. Clyde, of course, is the man who meets Virgil Greathouse, the chief Watergate figure to go to jail for his service to Richard Nixon, when he arrives at the jail to serve his time. The chauffeur who brings Greathouse to the jail and gives Starbuck a lift to the airport to fly to New York turns out to be an employee of the RAMJAC Corporation, the conglomerate that Mary O’Looney runs and Starbuck soon is to go to work for. And so it goes.

What Vonnegut gives us in this novel is a world that is our own, yet subtly changed. Well-known people appear under strange names: Virgil Greathouse is clearly John Mitchell, even equipped with his ever-present pipe. Well-known institutions and businesses, such as McDonald’s, appear under their own names, although they turn out, McDonald’s included, to be owned by the RAMJAC Corporation. Some real people and events, such as Watergate, Roy Cohn, and Sacco and Vanzetti, appear under their own names. Harvard men are everywhere. Is the world really owned by one great corporation? Are all the characters in this story real, under fictional guises? Is this story a part of a larger science fiction story written by Fender/Trout? Is Kurt Vonnegut a part of one of Trout’s science fiction stories? Are we all characters in a Vonnegut novel?

What gives rise to such questions is the style and structure of Vonnegut’s world. The real shades imperceptibly into the fantastic and back again; life becomes fiction and fiction becomes fact. Coincidence piles upon coincidence, the unexpected becomes the normal, and we find ourselves inside a huge...

(The entire section is 1135 words.)