by Kurt Vonnegut

Review by Edward Tanguay
July 26, 1995

I like a quote on the back of my book by Wilfrid Sheed from "Life": "Splendid art . . . a funny book at which you are not permitted to laugh, a sad book without tears." The New York Times called Vonnegut "the laughing prophet of doom."

The German passage by Goethe says, "From the dome of the Frauenkirche (a church) I saw the unpleasant rubble sitting in the middle of the beautiful order of the city. The sexton praised the art of the architect who had built the church and dome bomb-proof for such an undesirable occasion. The sexton then pointed out to me the ruins on all sides and said thoughtfully and laconically, "The enemy did that!" This passage mocks the reverent words of the sexton as 200 years later we know what modern bombs did to the Frauenkirche. This points to the new age that we live in where nothing of the past is safe from the destructive methods of today or from the haphazardness with which we seem to be employ them in our modern wars. An interesting corollary to all this, however, is that the rubble of the Frauenkirche had been kept as a war memorial by the East German government. After the fall of the wall, united Germany decided to use that rubble to reconstruct Frauenkirche once again. In this sense, that church has indeed remained bomb- proof! (To see a picture of the Frauenkirche, look for an advertisement by IBM in many popular magazines these days advertising the IBM computer or program which is being used to categorize all those pieces so that they can be put back together.)

Vonnegut repeatedly writes shocking passages of meaningless violence, then mocks your concern with an insolent "so it goes." This curt phrase has the same effect as the phrase "oh well" (said in a sarcastic tone) popular in the early 1980s during high school to show a lethargic nonconcern for an otherwise serious matter. I remember it used to get a lot of laughs and didn't require much wit to use. I get the same feeling from this book after awhile. Not a pleasant emotion--a bit sick, like the details of war.

Toward the end of maneuvers, Billy was given an emergency furlough home because his father, a barber in Ilium, New York, was shot dead by a friend while they were out hunting deer. So it goes. The idea was to put a criminal inside and then close the doors slowly. There were two special spikes where his eyes would be. There was a drain in the bottom to let out all the blood. So it goes. "You stake a guy out on an anthill in the desert--see? He's facing upward, and you put honey all over his balls and pecker, and you cut off his eyelids so he has to stare at the sun till he dies." So it goes. He was sentenced to six months in prison. The died there of pneumonia. So it goes.

They had been discovered and shot from behind. Now they were dying in the snow, feeling nothing, turning the snow to the color of raspberry sherbet. So it goes. A man in a boxcar across the way called out through the ventilator that a man had just died in there. So it goes. The Germans carried the corpse out. The corpse was Wild Bob. So it goes. On the eighth day, the forty-year-old hobo said to Billy, "This ain't bad. I can be comfortable anywhere." / "You can?" said Billy. / On the ninth day, the hobo died. So it goes. There was a death on the ninth day in the car ahead of Billy's too. Roland Weary died--of gangrene that had started in his mangled feet. So it goes. A slave laborer from Poland had done the stamping. he was dead now. So it goes. The British had no way of knowing it, but the candles and the soap were made from the fat of rendered Jews and Gypsies and fairies and communists, and other enemies of the State. So it goes. Rosewater, for instance, had shot a fourteen-year-old fireman, mistaking him for a German soldier. So it goes And Billy had seen the greatest massacre in European history, which was the fire-bombing of Dresden. So it goes. A lot of people were being wounded or killed. So it goes. The drunk scene in which Billy's trying to find the steering wheel in the car is funny. It reminds me of the drunk driving scene in The Great Gatsby: . . . He concluded that somebody had stolen [the steering wheel]. This angered him as he passed out. He was in the back seat of his car, which was why he couldn't find the steering wheel.

Weary is a well-defined character. He is an extreme and you feel that you know him. The way he is described, he probably reminds everyone of the childhood bully who tormented them. Weary is the extreme of a childhood bully. You see that he is relentless and not just all talk in this passage: Weary drew back his right boot, aimed a kick at the spine, at the tube which had so many of Billy's important wires in it. Weary was going to break that tube. I like this transition: Billy's smile as he came out of the shrubbery was at least as peculiar as Mona Lisa's, for he was simultaneously on foot in

Germany in 1944 and riding his Cadilla in 1967. Germany dropped away, and 1967 became bright and clear, free of interference from any other time. Billy was on his way to a Lions Club luncheon meeting."

This is funny:

There was a crippled man down there, as spastic in space as Billy Pilgrim was in time. Convulsions made the man dance flappingly all the time, made him change his expressions, too, as though he were trying to imitate various famous movie stars.

I like the effect of the following paragraph. It makes you think. The prisoners of war are all standing together and a colonel speaks to Billy:

The colonel coughed and coughed, and then he said to Billy, "you one of my boys?" This was a man who had lost an entire regiment, about forty-five hundred men--a lot of them children, actually. Billy didn't reply. The question made no sense.

This is a good analogy comparing a boxcar to a living organism:

. . . each car became a single organism which ate and drank and excreted through its ventilators. It talked or sometimes yelled through its ventilators, too. In went water and loaves of black- bread and sausage and cheese, and out came shit and piss and language. This is great. It is a precursor of David Larson's Far Side humor: Billy was displayed there in the zoo in a simulated Earthling habitat. Most of the furnishings had been stolen from the Sears Roebuck warehouse in Iowa City, Iowa. . . . There were magazines arranged in a fan on the coffee table in front of the couch . . . There was a picture of one cowboy killing another one pasted to the television tube . . . Billy got off h