Jailbird - Kurt Vonnegut (Box Clever Challenge - March)

I must confess, to my great shame, I know very little of American history or literature. Is Jailbird a classic novel? I'm not sure, that is for you to decide. Vonnegut, however, is a highly respected and one of the most influential American writers of the 20th century. His most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five was inspired after he witnessed the Allied bombers destroy Dresden during WW2.

Despite Vonnegut being such an influential writer, I had not heard of him. I read the play Reasons to be Happy, by Neil LaBute because Tom Burke is starring in the stage play and I wanted to know what the story was about. In one of the scenes, Greg, the main character which Tom plays, is reading Jailbird by Vonnegut. I Googled the book and decided that this would make an ideal choice for my March read in the 2016 Classics Challenge!

Jailbird is a mixture of black comedy, satire and a potted history of the USA labour movement. Throughout the novel, the book shows the flaws in both political and corporate America and gives an insight into the differences of a capitalist and communist theory. The plot of Jailbird centres around someone who has been jailed for his minor involvement in the Watergate scandal. In what is essentially his memoir, Walter F Starbuck let's us know where he is in present day America, and then backtracks on his life, and what happened to him during his first two days of freedom when he has been released from jail.

The book interweaves fact and fiction in a subtle manner, and I'm sure that if I was better educated about the events happening in America at the time, I would have gained even more from the book than I did. That said, it gave me a great overview of society and the difficulties encountered between workers and employers. The Cuyahoga massacre is a fictitious event, but this clearly shows the violence between striking workforces and their bosses, and how the law was clearly on the side of the rich factory bosses. Whilst the story is a piece of fiction, it does draw similarities from the Morewood massacre in Pennsylvania in 1891. This sub story towards the start of the novel is an important one, it introduces us to the person who is responsible for influencing Walter's life as he grows up.

"all human beings were evil by nature, whether tormentors or victims, or the idle standers-by."

The novel is certainly a thought provoking one, and Vonnegut's style of writing is easy to follow and does not take itself too seriously. The book opens ones eyes to a corrupt society, the amount that humans are willing to put up with in their search for money and happiness. It is an insight into the the social and political challenges in America, and in fact shows the global issues which face us all. As the story continues, Walter mentions business after business, some of which are real, and how they are all bought up and eventually owned by the fictitious RAMJAC corporation. It shows how the little man cannot survive without some bulldozer coming in and snapping up the business, and ultimately ruining it!

It might be a pessimistic viewpoint to state that all humans are evil, but by degrees they are. Can the person who stands back and watches atrocities be any better than the man who carries them out? For a supposedly intelligent race, we often do not accomplish the things we should, or do the good that we intend to do. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The real life martyrdom of Sacco and Vanetti is a true piece of USA history and shows how immigrants could be treated at the time. They were Italian born USA immigrants, convicted of murders they claimed they did not commit. Well-known writers and authors petitioned for a pardon, but their cries were ignored. Both men were sent to the electric chair, despite a man called Celestino Madeiros confessing to the crime. 50 years after their deaths, a Massachusetts Governor would state that he had evidence that their trial had not been a fair one, but he declined to say if they were guilty or not.

"we are here for no purpose, unless we can invent one"

The book has many little sub-stories peppered throughout it, each one serving as a salutary lesson to the reader. One of the characters writes a book about a planet where the worst crime imaginable was ingratitude. The punishment? Defenestration. Prague lovers will know that this was the act of throwing people from windows and sparked The Thirty Years War! Even Einstein pops up to remark that "Life was fair." We might not think that life is fair, but if we reflect, life gives us countless opportunities, the question is, do we take them? And if we do take them, do we take the right opportunities? Quite frankly we can never know, not unless we are able to live a parallel life and see what would happen if we took those other opportunities...what we can't say with any truthfulness is that life is unfair. Life is just what you make of it.

"My nose, thank God, had conked out by then. Noses are merciful that way."

People like to think that money equates to happiness. It doesn't. Money may make life a little more comfortable, but in the same way it cannot buy style, it cannot buy happiness. Happiness comes from the soul, and the story of Mary Kathleen O'Looney, later to marry into the corporate world of RAMJAC to become Mrs Jack Graham, a woman in fear of her life, is a sad but poignant part of the tale. She transformed herself into an old, smelly bag lady, millions of pounds in the bank, but living in fear of her life in an old underground station and becoming just another non-entity on the street. If she was found she would have her hands cut off. The rest of her would not be required. Whoever had her hands, her fingerprints, had control of RAMJAC one of the largest corporations in the world.

This brings us back to the beginning of the book, a multimillionaire is friendless. He has an inability to interact with society, he has a wife who ignores him, a daughter who is embarrassed by him. All that wealth and he has to befriend the child of his cook so that he can teach him how to play chess, and thus keep the multimillionaire happy. The child would be Walter F Starbuck, a man who would get a job in a high powered company, which will lead to his downfall.

Back in Reality

A school in New York City was asked to write to their favourite authors to persuade them to do a talk at their school. Some students wrote to Vonnegut, who by then was 84 years old. He did not visit the school, but he did take the time to write a letter. The contents should be read and enacted up I think, It would certainly make people think a little before being so unpleasant to their fellow man. I will leave you with some words of wisdom in this regard from Vonnegut himself.

(With thanks to www.lettersofnote.com where the full and original post can be found)

Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut was my March read for 2016ClassicsChallenge, in aid of http://www.boxclevertheatre.com   

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