Kurt Vonnegut’s “Sucker’s Portfolio”

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Sucker’s Portfolio is a collection of six complete short stories, one essay, and one unfinished short story (all previously unpublished – until November 2012) by Kurt Vonnegut. The book club of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library here in Indianapolis is reading this collection for our April meeting, which takes place… today! I purchased an e-version of the work via Amazon when it came out, and it was part of their “Amazon Serials” imprint. “They” sent you one story a week until you had the entire volume available to read on your kindle or other app. I admit I read the first one right away back then, but waiting patiently was never something I was good at so I decided to wait until I had the whole thing before I read on. And here – a year and a half later! – I finally get back to it. 🙂

I’m not, at least philosophically speaking, a big fan of literary work that is posthumously published. I always want to say, well – it probably wasn’t published for a reason: the author wasn’t happy with it, potential publishers didn’t deem it “ready,” and so on. Then I think about authors who, once they’ve “hit the big time” have no trouble getting anything they write published. Publishers are less strict about quality at that point since they’re selling the name. Considering that, ALL of the short stories in this collection would have had no problem being published. And, for my part anyway, they actually are worthy of being published on their own merit (without the Vonnegut name attached to them). They’re a heck of a lot better than a lot of other stories that are getting published, in my opinion anyway.

Most of the stories are typical of his early work for “the slicks” – major magazines of the day that frequently published short fiction. Several are somewhat romantic tales with a tincture of the dark humor he became best known for later in his career. Okay, maybe more than a tincture. 🙂 I liked almost all of them. The first, “Between Time and Timbuktu,” explores the near-death experience – after the main character, David Harnden, witnesses a doctor revive a supposedly dead-by-drowning man by the pond near his home. It contains a lot of ruminations on Time and one can almost see some of the ideas of time as viewed by the Tralfamadorians in Slaughterhouse Five beginning to coalesce in the author’s mind. The character in this story “ached to understand time, to defy it, to defeat it – to go back, not forward.” He is told by the doctor that a large percentage of ‘near death’ victims say the phrase “my whole life flashed before my eyes” and Harnden begins to wonder if such is the case, can that condition be artificially created so that, for example, he could go back and see his deceased wife. The doctor warns that time travel is too paradoxical citing for example that if you “knock of Charlemagne, and you kill about every white man on earth.” (!) Harnden realizes though that, in the case of the near-drowned man, “if he really did travel through time, (he) didn’t go anywhere but where he’d already been,” thus eliminating the possibility of interfering with history, I guess(?). An entertaining little story, which includes the great observation that “time – not cancer or heart disease or any other disease in his books – was the most frightening, crippling plague of mankind.”

The second story, “Rome,” deals with a small town play which is being produced with an unlikely ragtag cast. “Rome” is the name of the play, and its four characters include a naïve and simple-minded young man, a world-wise and cretinous young man, an innocent and pure young girl who happens to be the daughter of an irredeemable crook (but who also blithely believes him to be the greatest man on earth – e.g., when he shows up at rehearsal reeking of alcohol she exclaims, “Oh, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, you’ve got too much aftershave lotion on again.”), and our narrator, who is placed there to detail the action for us…

Another good story is the title piece, “Sucker’s Portfolio,” about a financial advisor who is hoping to save a young heir from squandering a $20,000 portfolio which has been painstakingly built up over the years. Odd requests from the young man for money and a sense of urgency would lead one to the natural conclusion that ‘something’s up,’ but maybe just not what we think. I guessed the ‘mousetrap ending’ to this one long before its unveiling occurred, but it was still an enjoyable story nonetheless.

Maybe my favorite story was the sixth one, titled “Paris, France.” Three couples share a cabin on a train during a journey from London to Paris, each making the trip for widely different reasons, AND the members of each couple also have different expectations for the trip. One couple is described as “two old and demoralized tourists from Indianapolis” which, being from that city myself, I enjoyed. 🙂 One husband is particularly irascible and wishes he had “stayed put” and not gone on a trip. He points to two empty seats and says, “There’s the seats of the two smartest people.” Nice. One of my favorite lines was describing one couple on a shoestring budget, when upon seeing the older couple Vonnegut relates, “Growing old was even tougher on Harry and Rachel than being broke all the time. Coming across really old people had the same soothing effect on them as easy credit.” Ha ha! I thought this was a great story which showcased Vonnegut’s skill at brief but effective characterizations of the principal characters.

The non-fiction essay, “The Last Tasmanian,” was an incisive almost stream-of-consciousness polemic decrying how big a mess we humans have made of things. Sprinkled with his usual RDA of humor, it wasn’t too different from a lot of other non-fiction Vonnegut I’d read in “Man Without a Country.” The title refers to the fact that the aboriginal peoples of the island of Tasmania were quickly wiped out by their European discoverers and how, a while after the arrival of the “civilized” people, they lost the will to even reproduce, not wanting to bring a new generation into existence. I don’t know if this really happened or if it is an exaggeration by Vonnegut (but he was an anthropology student at the University of Chicago…). He comments that the native Tasmanians hadn’t even domesticated fire, which sounds outrageous as well.

The unfinished story fragment, “Robotville and Mr. Caslow” is tantalizing and stops almost mid-sentence. It really made me want to see where he was going to take the rest of the story had he completed it. It takes place sometime after “World War III” where many of the veterans living in town served as “robots” in the war. Some still have a kind of antenna implant in their cranium, via which they used to receive instructions during the war, and there is a movement afoot trying to get them some kind of work where they can once again be told via transmitter what to do and when to do it, etc. I also found it interesting that Vonnegut chose to write this fragment in the 2nd person. As if the reader were receiving transmissions of his own…

All in all a fun volume to read my way through. Is it Vonnegut’s best work? No. Is it worth reading? Definitely.

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What about you? Have you read this or other Vonnegut works? How do you feel about all the posthumous publishing that takes place?

 

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11 Comments

  1. April 24, 2014 at 11:48 am

    I also am always struggling with this idea. For some like Kafka, we would have never had a large chunk of his work if it wasn’t published after his death. He left many things unfinished. But then, I’m also pulled the other way. Perhaps, there was a reason for not submitting? Maybe, they weren’t happy with it or weren’t finished. I read that David Foster Wallace’s estate is not happy with the new film coming out about him, which I think can be a totally viable opinion, but they also released his unfinished manuscript that was left at the time of his death. I’m curious if he would be mortified by the latter.

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    • Jay said,

      April 25, 2014 at 12:06 pm

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I shared part of them with the group since I was still at the meeting when the comment came through. And your Kafka reference made it to the unofficial minutes of the meeting. 🙂 http://vonnegutbookclub.wordpress.com/2014/04/24/meeting-april-24-2014/

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      • April 25, 2014 at 12:19 pm

        Thanks for the link. It appears that the other group members were a tad bit more negative about these stories.
        (on a side note–I have read terrible things about the quality of Amazon’s print-on-demand books.)

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        • Jay said,

          April 28, 2014 at 12:06 pm

          Yeah, regarding the print-on-demand issue, I’ve been to several bookstore or author events where they have some of the books displayed and – to me – they are just inferior. And sometimes they *smell* funny – someone else at the meeting even backed me up on that… I think the print on demand concept is wonderful but maybe it’s too early in its business lifecycle to have matured and grown into its maximum potential.

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  2. Dale said,

    April 24, 2014 at 6:33 pm

    Jay,
    I’m curious – was Bagombo Snuff Box published posthumously? It says “uncollected short fiction” on the cover. I would have to say that the stories I’ve read from there are fantastic. And these sound just as good.
    -Dale

    Like

    • Jay said,

      April 25, 2014 at 12:06 pm

      I yield to Dave who fields this question below. 🙂

      Like

  3. April 24, 2014 at 7:56 pm

    Wikipedia says that BSB was published by Putnam in 1999. All of the stories had been published previously, but Wikipedia doesn’t say where in all cases. Three of the stories were reworked by Vonnegut before they were republished.

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  4. Melissa said,

    April 30, 2014 at 3:54 pm

    I love that no matter where Vonnegut set his books he usually tossed at least one Hoosier in the mix!

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    • Jay said,

      May 2, 2014 at 7:29 am

      And, even if not specifically stated, the “Midland City” that appears in several novels is clearly Indianapolis. 🙂

      Like


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