Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut

JailbirdI’ll begin by acknowledging that Vonnegut is one of my favorite authors.  With that admission on the table, I do try to approach each book without prejudgment and remain open to view each piece on its own merit.  What I had forgotten was that Vonnegut always makes me laugh, and oftentimes guffaw, at some pretty heady stuff; wars, corruption, injustices, etc.

Jailbird delivers a convoluted story with outlandish characters that backdrop to the infamous Sacco and Vanzetti trial and the Watergate scandal, yet somehow this tale comes together flawlessly and wraps up like a gift prepared at an upscale store.

Walter F. Starbuck is recently released from a Georgia prison for his unnamed involvement in Watergate and heads to New York to begin anew.  Having lost his wife just weeks before his arrest, having no contact with his son, and having betrayed a friend, his hopes for the future are quite dismal.  An encounter with a mysterious “bag lady” sets things in motion and sends Walter into the depths of the city and into a new world of possibilities.  One hapless fellow that seems to get himself into one fine mess after another.

A Harvard roommate of Walter’s, Leland Clewes  pays the price, after stealing Walter’s girl, by being named a communist by him.  He resorts to selling matchbooks upon his release from prison and when he runs into Walter thanks him for showing him what a difficult life is like.  Leland does get his reward in the end.

Mary Kathleen O’Looney is a former girlfriend of Walter’s and when they run into each other, she takes him on a wild ride.  Due to a medical issue, she has forgotten his past mistreatment of her and his betrayal of Leland and only remembers their college heydays.  She takes Walter into her confidences and incorporates his experiences into a secret plan.


“Oh, I pity him,” he said.  “I even understand him.  How else could he ever amount to anything if he did not use loaded dice?  How has he used loaded dice with you?  The laws that say he can fire anybody who stands up for basic rights of workers–those are loaded dice.  The policemen who will protect his property rights but not your human rights–those are loaded dice.”

Was Vanzetti guilty of the lesser crime?  Possibly so, but it did not matter much.  Who said it did not matter much?  The judge who tried the case said it did not matter much.  He was Webster Thayer, a graduate of Dartmouth College and a descendent of many fine New England families.  He told the jury,  “This man,although he may not have actually committed the crime attributed to him, is nevertheless morally culpable, because he is the enemy of our exiting institutions.”    Word of honor:  This was said by a judge in an American court of law.  

On the banner were painted the words that the man who had sentenced Sacco and Vanzetti to death.  Webster Thayer, had spoken to a friend soon after he passed the sentence:  

“Did you see what I did to those anarchist bastards the other day?”

Where would I begin with Mr. Vonnegut?  The trouble would be masking my adoration and limiting my topics, believing he to be the gruff and impatient man he is portrayed to be.  I’d love to hear what he thinks of Anthony Weiner and I’m sure I’d howl over his response.  Hopefully he’d indulge me with some writing advice, by and by.

My rating for Jailbird is a 9 out of 10.

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Next up, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis…The Metamorphosis


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