If you remember on my birthday some weeks back, one of the resolutions I made was to read one book per week. I must admit, it was not an altogether original thought because I was, in fact, inspired by this blogger whose chronicles I enjoy reading immensely. I love reading and if you come by the house, you will see only two things piled up in the cramped space of my apartment, which I totally refuse to part with no matter how many times I move houses – books and shoes. Sadly, for the past year or so, I have been negligent in the reading department that I am now feeling the backlash. On most days I just feel so dumb and inadequate and though I am probably just being too hard on myself (again) by saying that…but it’s true. There is much to learn and I am beginning to hate myself for not absorbing as much!
On the day that I resolved to go bookworming again, I started with Sophie’s World because that was the book I brought along when I upped and spent time with my fiance. But once I got back, I found this book by Kurt Vonnegut which I must have had since college because the pages were all yellow and slightly brittle to the touch and I even saw a College classmate’s home number which I wrote on the last page of the book! Surreal, isn’t it? Intrigued, because I don’t really remember reading it over a decade ago, I gingerly opened the book — and I was hooked.
“You can’t just eat good food. You’ve got to talk about it too. And you’ve got to talk about it to somebody who understands that kind of food.” — Kurt Vonnegut, Jailbird
I am not sure but I think this may be the first Kurt Vonnegut novel I have ever read and I’m glad I did. It is full of dark, dead pan humor, as apparently only Kurt Vonnegut can write.
Are you all familiar with Charlie Brown from Charles Schulz‘s comic strip Peanuts? Then you would know what a Charlie Brown moment/day is. It is when you set out with all the best intentions, putting your best foot forward and making the best impression, only to have things go an entirely different direction at the last second? Sounds familiar? I’m sure, because we’ve all had our Charlie Brown moments, one way or the other. But the protagonist in Jailbird, Mr. Walter F. Starbuck, is painted as someone who seemed to have lived a Charlie Brown life. Not a moment or a day, but life. After a long intro in which WFS and his consequent plight – a lifetime of underachievement and inadequacy, the death of his wife, his estrangement from his son, being sentenced to prison because of his ‘involvement’ in the Watergate scandal – are slowly revealed, the story now focuses on the two days following his release from prison for his unremarkable (and almost completelely coincidental) role in the biggest scandal of US President Richard Nixon’s time. His rebirth into society becomes a frame for the story of his life and how he came to be in prison, through rambling – and sometimes hysterical – flashbacks. The running theme of his life? Well, let’s just say that it would be something Charlie Brown would sum up best as “Good grief!”
What I like most about this novel, although people say it is among the least ‘humorous’ work Vonnegut has ever penned, is that you get a sense of the author’s humanism and his compassion for mankind and its flaws. I could be wrong on so many levels but the way I read it, Jailbird’s underlying theme is the importance of fundamental kindness. Even when the situation is at its most negative, there still lies a flicker of conviction that compassion and generosity would be enough to set things right. Though Jailbird is replete with biting cynicism, you would feel that it is never completely disheartening to read because of that glimpse of childlike hope that we really could learn to forgive and be kind to one another.
This definitely won’t be the last Vonnegut novel I would read.
What are you feeding your mind these days?