I went to hear Kurt Vonnegut speak once, unannounced and in an unexpected venue (a gathering of film critics). After his perplexingly brief talk, a friend turned to me and asked, “What was that?” Readers born too late to remember Vonnegut’s heyday as an affable literary crank may have a similar response to A Man Without a Country, his collection of recent speeches and musings first published in the journal In These Times. They may also wonder if the world really needs this book.
Longtime admirers will be inclined to accept these random brain farts as plainspoken brilliance, and for the rest of us Vonnegut’s wry simplicity and disarming clarity make for a welcome channel-flip from the dunderheaded hysteria of our national discourse. Indeed, he takes particular aim at the Bushies here, and his homilies and blunt truisms (“Who do you imagine was more pleasing in the eyes of a merciful God back then, Karl Marx or the United States of America?”) are thus all the more refreshing.
But A Man Without a Country feels dashed off, and Vonnegut frequently comes across as a radical Andy Rooney or an L. Ron Hubbard with a more self-deprecating messianic impulse (“So I’ve brought scientific thinking to literature. There’s been very little gratitude for this”). At a time when publishing has flatlined and gifted young writers toil in soul-deadening jobs between book contracts, it’s hard to find the koans of a privileged ’60s sci-fi sage turned Mark Twain manqué all that earthshaking—especially at 24 bucks a pop. If Vonnegut weren’t an avowed Luddite, I’d suggest that he just start a blog.