As the size of a book club grows, the amount of time each member has to be heard shrinks (assuming the length of the meetings remains the same). This is beginning to happen to the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library’s book club. I went to our July meeting armed with several things I would like the group to talk about, but didn’t get a chance to voice most of them. This is fine. I have a book blog where I can talk about anything I want. 🙂 So as a result, I have some leftovers from the book I’d like to share.
Published in 1981, Palm Sunday is an outstanding collection of mostly essays, speeches, and excerpts from letters with a sprinkling of previously unpublished fiction. It’s not a book I would recommend to those not already familiar with Vonnegut’s oeuvre, but is full of his trademark witticism and truth-speaking, no matter if the latter may be painful to the reader.
One of our members, Karen, asked a great question near the end of the meeting, and we didn’t really have time for everyone to weigh in on it. It is perhaps more appropriate for our group, where most of us have read a lot of Vonnegut already. Her question was, “What new thing did you learn about Vonnegut from reading this book.” My reflex answer would be something cheesy like, “too much to pick just one,” but I’ll share a couple.
I did get some detail on KV’s brief encounter with another favorite writer of mine, Jack Kerouac. I had known from other sources that Kerouac had visited Vonnegut’s home in Cape Cod, and that Kerouac had behaved in a boorish manner. Here in this book we learn the pity felt for Kerouac by Vonnegut. “There were clearly thunderstorms in the head of this once charming and just and intelligent man.” He goes on to relate how Kerouac almost picks a fight with Kurt’s son, Mark, when the latter shows up dressed in what might be described as typical beat generation gear. It seems Kerouac was disturbed by this. “You think you understand me,” he said to Mark. “You don’t understand me at all. You want to fight about it?” Interesting and sad at the same time time. (below: Mark Vonnegut, M.D. See the resemblance?)
(author Jack Kerouac)
Another hitherto unknown trove of information dealt with his family history, presented as it had been compiled by a family friend named John G. Rauch. It’s always interesting to learn more about the background of a favorite artist, and the urge to come up with some “Ah, well THAT explains it!” moments is almost irresistible. In reality, though, too many factors are in play to truly figure out why someone “turned out the way he did.” Vonnegut adds a page or so with the postscript of Rauch’s history. Quoting Goethe, he advises that “Whatever it is that you have inherited from your father, you are going to have to earn it if it’s to really belong to you.” Words of wisdom.
Vonnegut also gave us a little more of a glimpse into his time at General Electric in Schenectady, New York. He expresses that he has a mysterious (he actually uses the word “irrational”) persisting concern about whatever became of his coworkers there, noting that they became a somewhat tight-knit group and that they shared the common ground of all “just getting our footing as adult citizens.” He also speculates that “I may have been born with some sort of clock in me which required me to love those working alongside of me so much at that time.” He sadly adds that the company’s view of what sort of relationship they should have with their coworkers was different. “It was the Darwinian wish of General Electric, of the Free Enterprise System, of course, that we compete instead.” Sad. He lasted there three years, from 1948 to 1951. Coincidentally, I just finished my third year at the most “corporate” job I’ve ever had. Almost gives me the idea it’s time to go. Hmmm….
There were some parts of the book that I didn’t enjoy, though, particularly a labored “musical comedy” based upon Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde,” for which I couldn’t wait to end. The strongest parts of the book to me were the author’s interview of himself (chapter five) as published in the Paris Review in 1977. You can tell Vonnegut is happy to seize the opportunity to answer all those questions he wished he had been asked. Great stuff.
Another favorite section of mine was from his chapter (13) concerning his children. He says, “What is my favorite among all the works of art my children have so far produced,” and chooses a letter written by his youngest daughter, Nanette, who was working as a waitress in the summer of 1978 when an irascible customer made complaints about a fellow waitress’s service. This other waitress was fired as a result, and management posted the customer’s letter of complaint on the company’s bulletin board. Nanette wrote him back (heh heh) and really let him have it, but in the nicest, most civil language you can imagine. The complete text of the letter is included in the chapter. It’s too long for me to re-type but its conclusion is representative:
“I feel it is my duty as a human being to ask you to think twice about what is of importance in life. I hope that in all fairness you will think about what I have said, and that in the future you will be more thoughtful and humane in your actions.”
Now, what was that I was saying earlier about heredity…?
(Below: The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis)