“Vonnegut Short Story Madness!” Early Round Matchups – Part I

I made it through eight stories in my “Vonnegut Short Story Madness” game the first weekend of March, and eight more this past weekend.  Time to start catching up with the results.  Instead of playing through one regions , I randomly selected one matchup from each region. My first was from the “Love” region, featuring “Girl Pool” vs. “Runaways.” The former is found in the collection “While Mortals Sleep,” and the latter in “Bagombo Snuff Box” (if you’re playing along at home).

while mortals sleep

This is my first time doing anything like this; although I sometimes rate books on a scale of 1 to 10 or 1 to 5 stars, I have never necessarily tried to rate and compare two works against each other. I immediately realized it’s unfair, as you often can’t use the same criteria for both stories since they may have been written for different purposes or in different styles. Be that as it may, I reminded myself that this was a game and “just for fun” and pressed on.

I read “Girl Pool” first, and perhaps was influenced by my excitement in getting started on the project. I loved the story immediately and began thinking, “Geez, it’s going to be tough to beat!”

***SPOILER ALERT*** Briefly,”Girl Pool” is a story told by a man about his now wife, “Amy Lou” who works in a gigantic corporation’s ‘girl pool’ – a reservoir of secretarial workers whose daily existence consists mostly of transcribing letters and such from a endless stream of tapes from, predominantly, the men in the company. Amy Lou works for the officious Miss Hostetter, who Vonnegut describes a “great elk of a woman, righteous, healthy and strong.”

As you might guess, the drudgery of her work quickly wears on Amy Lou, who is at heart a romantic. She feels “no sign of life” at the job until the excitement of the news that Larry Barrow, a fugitive (and wounded) murderer, is rumored to be hiding somewhere in the vast acreage of the corporation. Resourceful, he sees on a corporate bulletin board about how the girl pool is at the service of anyone with a dictaphone machine. He finds one and dispatches a plea for help.

Amy Lou is the lucky employee who receives this message in a bottle and resolves to bring some food to the remote building where Barrow is hiding out. Later, though, she discovers that the particular dictaphone tape, which had hidden in her desk drawer, is now missing. A quick search discovers that it is now in Miss Hostetter’s desk. Afraid that Miss Hostetter will turn him in, she hurries to the building with a care package of candy bars to take to Barrow. She is shocked to find Miss Hostetter already at the building. It seems she is a softie at heart as well, and is on a similar errand of mercy!

Sadly, Barrow has died before they got there, but the two workers now have a new understanding of each other, and hopefully the dawn of a new, more pleasant work environment for Amy Lou is in order. On her way home, waiting for the bus, Amy Lou runs into the narrator of the story. Initially maintaining the “impersonal bus stop distance” with each other Amy Lou suddenly bursts into tears, leaning into the narrator who says, “My gosh, another human being!”

What chance did the story, “Runaways” have against a great story like that? I felt sorry for it while reading, since I knew it “stood no chance” against such a strong performance. Though an underdog, it made a game of it for awhile, though. “Runaways” is about young love. Teenage love, featuring Annie, the daughter of the governor of Indiana, and her young beau, Rice Brentner, the proud new owner of a car. They run away together only to be tracked down and returned to their families, Annie to the Governor’s mansion (Vonnegut grew up just a few blocks from the real Indiana governor’s mansion) and Rice to “the other side of the tracks.” Brentner won’t be denied, however, and phones Annie pretending to be a more “suitable” boy from her own social circle so that her parents will let her come to the phone. In no time,they are off again, speeding across the state line and into Ohio before they are caught this time. Thinking they’re in even more trouble than before, they are shocked when a message from the governor says, “you are to return home in your own car whenever you feel like it.” Ah, the old reverse psychology gambit… It works in this case, though. The kids realize they’re not ready and the parents win this round.

(below: the Indiana Governor’s Mansion – “just down the street” from where Vonnegut lived as a boy)

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One thing I liked about this story was how Vonnegut wove song lyrics into the narrative. Of course, these were all subversive song lyrics, encouraging teenagers to wildness and delinquency. I don’t know if they’re from real songs or if Vonnegut made them up. I suspect the latter; that would be more like him.

So, I’m awarding this first round matchup to “Girl Pool,” which will move on to face the winner of “A Night for Love” and “Find Me a Dream.”

The second of the matches I’ll cover in this post is “Epicac” (the story of a ‘nerd’ and a computer who both fall in love with the same girl) vs. “The Powder Blue Dragon” from the technology region. I wrote about Epicac at length before here (check out the sonnet in the post, exspecially), and thought this would be a rout, but the other story nearly pulled off the upset.

“The Powder Blue Dragon” is about Kiah Higgins, a lower-class orphan boy who has pulled himself up by his bootstraps, working three jobs, the primary of which was in an car dealership and service shop. He has somehow saved enough money to buy the most powerful car available, the exotic-sounding Marittima-Frascati (a name made up by Kurt Vonnegut, who once ran a Saab Dealership on Cape Cod – the first in America).

(below: some of Kurt Vonnegut’s drawings on his old Saab dealership stationery)

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Kiah feels owning this car will be his ticket to acceptance. When he first gets behind the wheel of the car out on the turnpike he “ceased to feel like an intruder in the universe.” He soon learns that, outside of the car, he is still viewed as just a boy and is not taken seriously or given respect. He even tries, though bragging about his car, to make time with a rich girl who, when her actual boyfriend arrives and she says to Kiah, why don’t you tell Paul about your Vanilla Frappe.

I liked Kiah’s character a lot, but the story “Epicac” had a little more going for it, I thought, so it moves on and will be matched with the winner of “ThePackage” and “2BR02B” in the round of sixteen.  In other first round match-ups: In the “War” region,  The Manned Missiles (previously posted about here) defeated the comical Der Arme Dolmetscher from Armageddon in Retrospect and in the Humanity region, Deer in the Works (previously posted about here) defeated Custom Made Bride (previously mentioned here).  I’ll probably wait to post updated brackets until the first round is completed…  The starting brackets may be found in the original post.

Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, “Deer in the Works.”

I read this Vonnegut story yesterday morning. I found it poignant and it struck a nerve with me and probably would do the same with anyone who has made difficult decisions about one’s career and the path it takes. **spoiler alert** It’s really quite sad. It’s about a young man, David Potter, whose family has just gone from four to six – his wife having recently given birth to twins (for the second time, no less!). This increase in his responsibility has prompted him to attend a sort of job fair – in today’s parlance anyway – for the local major corporation, The Ilium Works. I like that name, by the way. It calls to mind Homer’s Iliad… Also the poem by Christopher Marlowe, “The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships”

Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies!
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.
I will be Paris, and for love of thee,
Instead of Troy, shall Wittenberg be sack’d;
And I will combat with weak Menelaus,
And wear thy colours on my plumed crest;
Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.
O, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appear’d to hapless Semele;
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa’s azur’d arms;
And none but thou shalt be my paramour!

above: Christopher Marlowe. Sorry for the digression (you’ll get used to it if you’re a new “citizen” of Bibliophilopolis)

Anyhoo, back to Mr. Vonnegut’s story… David had been for a few years the editor of a small newspaper. It wasn’t a very profitable business, but it was one he loved and he had the freedom of being more or less self-employed. When he “interviews” at the job fair, he impresses to a degree that, even though they don’t currently have a position open of exactly the type he’s after, they offer him a job anyway. Predictably, when he learns what his salary will be, he is seduced by the prospect of a better life for him and his family and accepts. He happily tells his wife, who is skeptical since she knows how much he loved the paper. He convinces her – actually probably just reassures himself – that it is the right decision.

Upon his arrival on his starting day, however, he begins to see the price he will have to pay for “improving his station” in life. He is disturbed by how the company has charts and graphs of anticipated salaries & growth of employees, as if his entire career – and life – have been pre-ordained by this corporate entity. Once inside “The Works” he must also come to grips with the gargantuan size of the place, getting lost and disillusioned. The position he has taken, incidentally, has more or less to do with “publicity” for the company, and at some point during the first day, the “exciting” news that a deer is loose within the company grounds leads his boss to direct him to cover the “story.”

In the course of trying to find where the deer is supposed to be – and getting lost again – he learns that the deer is likely to be killed and the venison served at the annual “Quarter Century Club” picnic (for those who have worked at The Works for over twenty-five years). Throughout these events, Potter begins to fully comprehend the cold, thoughtless “machinery” that is the entity known as “The Works” and realizes he no longer wants to be a part of it, despite the cost. He helps intervene on the deer’s behalf, and when it escapes the fence through a gate he follows it, closing the gate behind him. The last line of the story is perfect: “He didn’t look back.” Bravo!

below: a younger Kurt Vonnegut