“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)


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)


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 “The Manned Missiles”

One of the books I enjoyed the most during my first year of blogging (2010) was Kurt Vonnegut’s short story collection, “Welcome to the Monkey House.” It’s only natural, then, that when I was planning my 2012 short story reading project, I would include at least one of the stories from that collection.


As many already know, the year 1957 marked a turning point in the new space age. Unexpectedly – to the United States anyway – the Soviet Union launched the satellite, Sputnik, into orbit, which became a visible, public (it was visible to the naked american eye as it hurtled over our continent) reminder that we weren’t “in the lead.” It served to shock the United States out of a complacent delusion of technological superiority and was an event that sparked the “space race” which led t0 the July 20, 1969 moon landing.

It was in this climate that Vonnegut’s story “The Manned Missiles” was published in the July 1958 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. (see cover picture below, which trumpets “five stories and a complete mystery novel!”)


***Spoiler Alert!***
This story is unique among Vonnegut’s work because it was the only thing he wrote in “epistolary” form. It consists entirely of an exchange of letters between the fathers of a pair of astronauts, one American and one Russian (I guess I should’ve said an astronaut and a cosmonaut?). Anyway, we learn that both sons are dead and their deaths are somehow related (Vonnegut withholds the details, portioning them out gradually). The Russian son, Stephan Ivankov, is the first man in space and the American son, Bryant Ashland is sent up immediately after Ivankov in a kind of reckless technological one-upmanship between the nations. An “accident” has occurred, however, and both sons were killed.

The letters between the fathers seem intent on convincing the other that, in spite of what has happened, the sons were “good men” and not the villains that the governments and media involved seem to want to paint them. Ivankov’s father, a stone mason, had long struggled with why his son wanted to be a pilot and later a cosmonaut. Having eventually figured him out, he shares with Ashland’s father that “It was not for the Soviet Union but for the truth and beauty of space, Mr. Ashland, that Stephan worked and died.”


Ashland, who runs a gasoline station, concludes his letter to Ivankov by admitting that he’s “crying now” and that, “I hope some good comes now from the death of our two boys. I guess that’s what millions of fathers have hoped for as long as there have been people.”

The story is made even more poignant by the fact we learn near the end that the two “baby moons” (that’s how Vonnegut refers to satellites and spacecraft in the story) have, after the accident, split into a bunch of baby moons, drifting apart, two of which are… Ivankov and Ashland.


This story interested me mainly because of the time in which it was written. What must it have been like to be in America in the late fifties, seeing Sputnik fly over head and know the U.S.A.was “behind…”

This weekend also marked the passing of American Astronaut, Neil Armstrong, who became the first human to walk on the moon eleven years after this story was published. A few years back, I read a good biography of Armstrong, “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong” by James R. Hansen. It’s well worth reading, if you’d like to learn more about the remarkable life of an inspiring man.