Rating: 5 stars
Read for the Reader’s Room Road Trip Challenge.
I love Kurt Vonnegut. He is one of my favourite authors. I enjoy his deceptively simple prose and his wryly weary take on how ridiculous humanity is. His books are part satire, part morality tale, and part whimsy.
Deadeye Dick follows Rudy Waltz, resident of Midland City, Ohio, a fictional place based on the Midwest towns Vonnegut was familiar with. Rudy is the son of the black sheep scion of a family whose wealth came from their success in the pharmaceutical industry. His father, Otto Waltz, wants to be an artist and travels to Austria. He fails to be accepted into the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, but he meets a young Austrian artist from whom he buys a watercolour and with whom he develops a friendship. The Austrian artist goes on to develop a political ethos with a world changing impact. It’s an ethos that is still warmly embraced by white men. The artist is Adolf Hitler, the ethos is Nazism.
The book isn’t about Hitler, though. He is treated as a side character, someone who has a different meaning to Rudy Waltz’s family than he has to both those who abhor and those who adore him. He’s a family friend and fellow artist who becomes head of state in Germany. Otto Waltz visits him in Berlin and brings home a Nazi flag, which he flies from the flagpole atop his mansion.
This was only 1934, and World War Two was still a long way off. It was a long way off, that is, if five years can be considered a long way off. So flying a Nazi flag in Midland City was no more offensive than flying a Greek or Irish or Confederate flag, or whatever. It was a playful, exuberant thing to do, and, according to Mother, the community was proud and envious of Father and her and Felix. Nobody else in Midland City was friendly with a head of state.
I love the satirical innocence of this passage. It reads like the thing Trump apologists say. It offers an excuse on the grounds that you don’t need to dig too deeply into what lies behind someone’s rapid rise to power. You don’t need to think about the consequences of the means when you like the sound of the message. I started reading this book the night before the white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia. On Sunday morning, it felt a particularly timely thing to be reading.
Otto Waltz’s friendship with Adolf Hitler leads him to become a figure of derision in Midland City, especially after the new social order Otto has been championing on the local lecture circuit turns out to be a white supremacist social order and the cause of another World War. Otto turns government informant about his one time friend, and goes back to being a deluded idiot in all other aspects of his existence.
An accident with a gun sets Rudy on a different path in life, and gives his father the opportunity to play a very particular role that effectively ruins the family. Rudy becomes the child who stays at home and cares for his parents, living more as a servant than as a son.
There’s a story Rudy tells about the time Eleanor Roosevelt visited the curiosity that the Waltz family home had become. Reading it today, in light of recent events in American politics, made me shake my head. Sometimes something happens that you thought was unconscionable, and then everything you read seems to be a commentary on it, and you start feeling that the unconscionable thing was actually something almost inevitable, because humans don’t like to learn from the past.
[Eleanor Roosevelt] said that there would be a wonderful new world when the war was won. Everybody who needed food or medicine would get it, and people could say anything they wanted, and could choose any religion that appealed to them. Leaders wouldn’t dare to be unjust anymore, since all the other countries would gang up on them. For this reason, there could never be another Hitler. He would be squashed like a bug before he got very far.
I mean, we almost managed to remember for 70-something years. But yeah, it’s not currently going too well, that old prevention of fascism thing. And yet, did we properly remember over the years that followed the end of the Second World War? This year is the 70th anniversary of the partition of India to create Pakistan and Bangladesh. There have been commemorative programmes on TV and radio, the most affecting of which has been the programme My Family, Partition & Me: India 1947. The stories told by people alive today who witnessed partition as it happened were distressing. One of the men who travelled to India to better understand his family’s experience made a simple statement about the ability of humans to be cruel and callous towards those who are different. Partition was only two years after a war against the callous cruelty of fascism ended. Then there was the ethnic cleansing that happened during the Balkan conflict in former Yugoslavian countries during the early 1990s. Now there is the rise of neo-fascism in France, the Netherlands, the UK and the US.
Something else Rudy says in the book gave me pause for thought in relation to this. It made me think that as a species we need to take a long hard look at ourselves and stop taking ourselves so seriously.
I identified a basic mistake my parents had made about life. They thought that it would be very wrong if anybody ever laughed at them.
Dictators, petty or grand, don’t like to be laughed at. And they certainly don’t like to laugh at themselves.
As ever with Vonnegut, there’s a sadness to the humour. In Deadeye Dick, I found that sadness in his assertion that adulthood is mostly epilogue. Our stories happen when we are innocent of the world, when we believe that we can do anything, dream anything, be anything. That, says Rudy Waltz, is when we are alive. Our stories end with the loss of innocence, and everything thereafter is epilogue. Life goes on, but our stories don’t. As Vonnegut might have said, isn’t that something?
There’s the suggestion that this ending of a story can happen to nations as well as individuals.
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.
Other elements of the story tie into this idea. Some characters give up hope and become dependent on drugs to get through each day. Some characters run away from their responsibilities because facing them is too hard. Rudy’s brother Felix is a man who finds it hard to commit to a relationship, and easy to wriggle out of it when making things work is too difficult. Parents screw up their children because they don’t know how to be adults. I’m not suggesting that the moment you turn eighteen you must only and always act like an adult, but sometimes it feels as though the seven decades since the end of the Second World War have culminated in most adults, myself included, living in a sort of permanent adolescence. As though, if Vonnegut is right, we’re desperately clinging to our innocence, our stories, hiding our fear of their loss behind a teenage attitude of cynicism. I see it in the behaviour of British politicians. I see it in the behaviour of the current US President. I see it in exchanges on social media. I see it in news reports on the latest vigilante or activist protest. Nobody listens, nobody has conversations, nobody is interested in seeing the other side, nobody can accept that sometimes they might be wrong, or that their actions might be selfish. Society seems to be becoming increasingly uncivil.
It bums me out, man!
But I do love Vonnegut and his gentle observations on how, if we don’t wake up to ourselves, if we don’t acknowledge our flaws or stop taking ourselves so seriously, humanity is pretty much doomed. I really enjoyed this book and am kicking myself for waiting eleven years to read it.