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