Walter Starbuck, a career humanist and eventual low-level aide in the Nixon White House, is implicated in Watergate and jailed, after which he (like Howard Campbell in Mother Night) works on his memoirs. Starbuck is innocent (his office was used as a base for the Watergate shenanigans, of which he had no knowledge), and yet he is not innocent (he has collaborated with power unquestioningly and served societal order all his life). In that sense, Starbuck is a generic Vonnegut protagonist, an individual compromised by the essential lack of an interior.
Jailbird (1979) uses the format of the memoir to retrospectively trace Starbuck's uneven, centerless, and purposeless odyssey in or out of the offices of power. He represents another Vonnegut Everyman caught amongst forces he neither understands nor can defend. Written in the aftermath of Watergate, Jailbird is, of course, an attempt to order those catastrophic events and to find some rationale or meaningful outcome, and, as is usually the case with Vonnegut's pyrotechnics, there is no easy answer, or perhaps there is no answer at all.
Starbuck (his name an Americanized version of his long, foreign birth name), in his profound ambiguity and ambivalence, may himself constitute an explanation for Watergate, a series of whose consequences have not, decades later, been fully assimilated or understood. The Nixon who passes across the panorama of Jailbird is no more or less ambiguous than Starbuck himself - a man without qualities whose overwhelming quality is one of imposition.
©1979 Kurt Vonnegut (P)2015 Audible, Inc.
What I most love about Vonnegut is the way he weaves serious historical facts about great evils and injustices with wickedly sharp humour and vivid characters, to make for a story that is both entertaining and profound. "Jailbird" thoroughly fits that mould. It makes for illuminating reading.
"a fool and his self respect are soon parted"
“I was making my mind as blank as possible, you see, since the past was so embarrassing and the future so terrifying.”
― Kurt Vonnegut, Jailbird
Sometimes, I'm not sure if we are running recklessly toward a Philip K Dick future or a Kurt Vonnegut future. Sometimes, it sure seems like a bit of both. Both authors like to play with ideas of fascism. I think part of the draw, for me, of these two authors right now is how they sensed (Vonnegut especially in this book) the absolute absurdity and reality of economic greed, political malfeasance, incompetence, power, and the inability of the huddled, socialist masses to make much of a damn bit of difference.
Part of Vonnegut's appeal is his everyman's view of things. He doesn't write his books from some ivory tower. His perch seems to be closer to a cranky uncle on a beat up couch, with cigarette burns in his pants, gravy on his shirt, and a wink in his eye.
This is the second book I've read after challenging, bribing my 15-year-old son to read some of my Vonnegut paperbacks. I'm now two books into my own Vonnegut revisit. Peace.
Read not for a story. Read, or as in my case, listen for KV's message. Thoughtful.
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