The Ludicrous Notion of Patriotism or, Kurt Vonnegut Revisited

There was a guy in our unit who had given away all his possessions in a show of solidarity with workers of the world everywhere. The reason for this was because he was not a communist so much as he was a lunatic.

It’s been brought to my attention that I should post more often on my web site. They say independent authors should use blogs to drum up business. Honestly, I thought often about pulling the plug. Yet, here I am. I won’t even guess when I last posted. There’s good reason for that. Actually, several of them. I used to tell people: everything happens for a reason.

In December 2019 I went into a hospital to have some stents put in since I had been suffering chronic chest pain. There were supposed to be three put in, but the third one didn’t go well. That’s doublespeak for my having a widow-making heart attack right on the operating table. Well, it would have been a widow maker had I not been where I was. The reason that happened was because one artery collapsed. This is doublespeak for it became so clotted it quit working. I ended up with two stents, some new medicine which makes even shaving treacherous should I happen to nick myself, and, joy of joys, one of the medications for blood pressure actually triggered a mild case of plaque psoriasis. As it was explained to me by the medical professionals involved: it’s a small price to pay for the alternative. So, if I understand them correctly, the reason I have developed plaque psoriasis for the first time in my life is because of the medicines I take to keep me alive? Everything happens for a reason.

A few months later, the Coronavirus pandemic began. Beginning in late March 2020, I joined scores of other adjunct professors who ended up teaching online. Like everyone else across the country, I learned to keep myself occupied at home when I wasn’t working or traversing the infectious perils of the local supermarket. In June of this year I started reading Kurt Vonnegut novels in the order they were published. There was a reason for this. One of the schools where I used to teach had a different opinion than mine about academic integrity. Our parting left me with more free time than I was used to having.

Player Piano, Vonnegut’s first novel, is a sci-fi tale that concerns itself, in part, with people being replaced by machines in the workplace. It read like so many sci-fi novels of its time. It is my least favorite of Vonnegut’s novels. Technically, the novel is rendered well enough. For me, it read like a Heinlein novel with not as much sassy, sexist, smarmy dialogue.

My intention here is not to review every single Vonnegut novel. Though I will say that in no particular order, for a variety of  reasons, the author’s books that resonated most so far are Breakfast of Champions, Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, and The Sirens of Titan.

I should probably mention that my first exposure to Kurt Vonnegut’s work came when my father mentioned that I should read him. That was probably when I was in high school. I didn’t get to any of Vonnegut’s work until the mid-1980s when I stopped into an airport bookstore and purchased a paperback copy of Palm Sunday. The reason I didn’t heed my father’s suggestion was because that was what teenage boys were expected to do. Anyway, Palm Sunday served as a good introduction for me to Vonnegut’s writing. I was nineteen years old, still in my first year of a three-year enlistment in the army. It was the only one the army ever offered for that odd length of time. The reason for this, as it was explained decades later to me by my former company commander, was that the option I had chosen—a program they called COHORT which stood for Cohesion, Operational Readiness, Training—turned out to be a disaster. He even directed me to a study done by the army. The study said the COHORT program was supposed to build morale since soldiers went to basic training together and served at their regular unit as one group. The study also echoed my old company commander’s assessment. The reason for this was because he pretty much memorized the study chapter and verse.

The year I had purchased that copy of Palm Sunday I was a long way off from my ETS (End of Time in Service) date, and wrestling with my father’s recent death, a budding love-hate relationship with alcohol, and an insatiable appetite for books of any sort that called into question the ludicrous notion of patriotism.

The post library at Fort Campbell was equivalent to a decent community library. There I was able to take out books like Howl from Allen Ginsberg and The Communist Manifesto. One day on a lunch break I got a dressing down from a junior officer when he saw me reading The Communist Manifesto, one of those mooks raised on fairy tales of Old Glory and Patriotism. It was also the 1980s. The Soviet Union was still very much on everyone’s mind. There was a guy in our unit who had given away all his possessions in a show of solidarity with workers of the world everywhere. The reason for this was because he was not a communist so much as he was a lunatic.

I don’t like to dwell too long on my army days, though I do sometimes write about it. The reason for not thinking about those years ad nauseum is because I had a life after uniform. Some guys I know like to live in the past, telling stories of glory days. Not me. The reason for this was because I didn’t very much like those years. Enough digression. Let’s move on.

Yesterday I started Jailbird. And when I say started I mean I’m still reading the introduction that Vonnegut penned. The day before that I finished Breakfast of Champions. I can’t say I am a fan of an author placing himself in his own novel, even if some critics call it ‘experimental.’ Nevertheless, it made an impression on me…again. The reason for this is because, as he does in so many of his other novels, Vonnegut had a lot to say about America; not much, if any of it, is favorable. There’s good reason for that. If you haven’t read Vonnegut’s novels, give them a try. If you did read them, perhaps it’s time to revisit them like I did.

In Praise of Sabers and Laser Guns

They say that the road to healing starts with admittance. And with admittance comes acceptance. For years, I remained torn between what is serious literature, as dictated by the ‘canon’, and my first true love in the world of letters: science fiction and fantasy. Granted, there are many books that fall into the latter category that also are deserving of their place on the coveted canon: Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wizard of Oz, Brave New World, 1984, Naked Lunch, and a host of others. For me, there are plenty of others; favorites that I read in middle school and later as a teenager.

My penchant for all things science fiction and fantasy carried all the way into my stint in the army. The day I arrived at basic training I carried on me a copy of Larry Niven short stories. And after I was assigned to my permanent duty station at Fort Campbell, KY I introduced a platoon mate to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I will call my former army comrade Xavier (though in all my days in uniform I never met a soldier named Xavier; likewise, anyone named Blane or Reed). Xavier was a poster child for Palooka-ism. A high school dropout from some shit hole block in the Bronx, Xavier thought that books were for rich kids, no doubt echoing his father’s sentiment; if he knew his father at all.

What Xavier really meant was that he never learned to read well. Sure, he could read an army manual; but when I was in the service I knew plenty of toddlers who were capable of comprehending those manuals as well. Xavier wanted to read, but he was afraid what others might think of him. In the 1980s, when I served in the army, every infantryman I knew carried some old paperback in his rucksack when we went out in the backwoods of Fort Campbell, KY to perform military exercises. We did this because inevitably there would be down time in a fox hole, or just outside of the fox hole, and everyone read something. Some guys read classics (one platoon member of mine spent the bulk of his enlistment reading Dostoevsky…though I don’t recommend it because Dostoevsky has a way of making you want to break with the mindless hive mentality that the army attempts to instill in young soldiers), others read what we writers refer today as genre-specific novels: westerns, crime, horror, etc.

So there was Xavier who saw a paperback copy of The Hobbit in my barracks room. “This any good?” he grunted one afternoon. “Most of the world thinks so,” I told him. Despite Xavier being possessed of the ability to beat someone senseless (think a rabid gorilla strung out on PCP pummeling you into a bloody pulp, a pulverized mess of broken bones and permanent brain damage), I never pulled any punches with him. I convinced him to borrow it. A week later, he asked if I had other books by Tolkien. Another convert, another victory…

These days I don’t know if Xavier is still reading. Hell, I don’t even know if he’s still alive. What I do know is that I exposed someone else to the life of the mind. And even if it lasted for a short time, I like to think that that Xavier became richer for the experience.

As for you, you might not read science fiction or fantasy. You might say that it’s not your thing. You might say it is escapist literature. And for you, right now, in this present moment, that may be true. Just don’t be so quick to judge, friends, before you consider this: between the fifth grade and your senior year of high school you probably read some science fiction or fantasy literature. If you were fortunate like me to attend college then you definitely read it there too. You didn’t need to torture yourself like I did as an English major (ok, it wasn’t torture…I rather liked my major, reading all of those great stories, plays, novels, and poems.), and if you didn’t you had to read something close to science fiction or fantasy if you took a survey course as part of your English requirement toward another degree. The Iliad? The Odyssey? Shakespeare’s Tempest? Midsummer Night’s Dream? The aforementioned Frankenstein? Edgar Allen Poe? The list goes on and on…

So, what is about science fiction and fantasy literature that entices me? It comes down to ideas. It comes down the what-if factor. It comes down to writers who dare to dream. It comes down to the books I have read that taught me to dream, to question what if? In science fiction and fantasy the writer imagines worlds that could be, that might be. It is and will forever be my first love.