Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Readings: Kurt Vonnegut's Deadeye Dick



Just now, I read the last page of Kurt Vonnegut’s strange and depressing novel, Deadeye Dick. The characters are all very real, in that not one of them has at his or her core any essentially redeeming quality. Unless, that is, one is able to see a futile and ephemeral existence, in itself, as a redeeming quality. This morning, anyway, I cannot.

I characterize the novel as depressing largely because I recognize myself in it. I am depressing—to me anyway. I noted a couple of passages from the novel which illustrate what I’m talking about here:

p. 208  We all see our lives as stories, it seems to me, and I am convinced that psychologists and sociologists and historians and so on would find it useful to acknowledge that. If a person survives an ordinary span of sixty years or more, there is every chance that his or her life as a shapely story has ended, and all that remains to be experienced is epilogue. Life is not over, but the story is.

            […]

p. 209  This could be true of nations, too. Nations might think of themselves as stories, and the stories end, but life goes on. Maybe my own country’s life as a story ended after the Second World War, when it was the richest and most powerful nation on earth, when it was going to ensure peace and justice everywhere, since it alone had the atom bomb.


Deadeye Dick was published in 1982.  And, like Vonnegut’s earlier novels, it treats of shadowy evils that give rise to various national paranoias, which, seemingly, only small clusters of Americans seem to notice or fret about at any given time.

A plot element in Deadeye Dick is that the narrator’s hometown is mysteriously destroyed by a neutron bomb. The official story is that this was an accident that occurred when a bomb being trucked from some unknown Point A to an unnamed Point B was somehow triggered as it passed through the fictional Midland City, Ohio.

This official version of the total destruction of the citizens of Midland City is accepted as gospel by almost everybody. There is a small organization of activist farmers from Southwestern Ohio, who aren’t buying the government’s explanation of the tragedy. This group is passing out leaflets near the perimeter of the blast zone, the gist of the message of which is: 

p. 231  …that the United States of America was now ruled, evidently, by a small clique of power brokers who believed that most Americans were so boring and ungifted and small time that they could be slain by the tens of thousands without inspiring any long-term regrets on the part of anyone.

And there you have Vonnegut’s prescient description of the paranoiac musings of the “Truthers” with regard to the destruction of the World Trade Center and the lives of several thousand Americans working in the buildings that fell.

And there is more: Midland City, the buildings of which are all still standing, for that is how the neutron bomb is designed to work, is now surrounded by barbed wire, mine fields, and fences—a stockade patrolled by the military and off-limits to all citizens, unless accompanied by soldiers. The rumor is that the city will be used as a dwelling place for refugees from Haiti and other such depressed nations. One of the pamphlet-distributing farmers expresses this opinion:

p. 233-234   “They aim to bring slavery back… They never gave up on it… These slaves aren’t going to be Americans. They’re going to come by the boatload from Haiti and Jamaica and places like that… Do you honestly believe that fence is ever coming down?”

These passages immediately brought to my mind currently circulating speculations about the fenced and very hush-hush “FEMA Camps” supposedly being constructed across the U.S.  What also comes to mind is the very obvious militarization of the municipal police forces (think Watertown, MA during the dragnet following the Boston Marathon incident) and the huge amounts of ammunition being bought up by federal authorities, but not being sent to the war zones.

The farmer, when questioned about just who these people are, says that they have no name:

“They don’t want us to know their name, so they don’t have a name. You can’t fight back against something that don’t have a name.”

And so it goes.

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