Kurt Vonnegut (2010) Look at the Birdie

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This is not a modern collection of thirteen and a bit Kurt Vonnegut short stories as the publication date suggests. In a letter to a Mr Miller dated 1951 Kurt Vonnegut addresses anthropology, the Indian Ghost Dance of 1894 (which interested me) and among other things, whether writing can be learned at a school of writing. He concludes: ‘This letter is sententious crap, shot full of self pity…I quit GE, if I’m not a writer then I’m nothing.

This is Kurt Vonnegut before he was Kurt Vonnegut. His stories here are dated. The Petrified Ants I, II, III, for example, has brothers Peter and Josef, Russia’s leading myrmecologists (the study of ants), being sent from the University of Dnepropetrovsk to a mine sunk half- a-mile deep on a site of radioactive mineral water were petrified ants have been found by miners. The brothers are overseen by Borgorov, ‘favourite third cousin of Stalin himself’. The petrified ants mimic man’s evolution from hunter-gatherer to capitalism and communism. Obviously capitalism is the better of the two. This is where the petrified ants die enmasse, but the dilemma is what narrative line our intrepid myrmecologists will take? My thoughts slowed to a trickle.  I read on more through habit than interest.

‘Ed Luby’s Key Club’ is the longest story, about twenty-five pages, and is perhaps the pick of the bunch. It starts promisingly. ‘Ed Luby worked for Al Capone. And then he went into bootlegging on his own, made a lot of money at it.’ Ed Luby returned to his old mill town of Illium and bought it. He bought the radio station and several business. He also purchased the town’s restaurant and called it Ed Luby’s Steak House. Only the most select residents and bigwigs, such as the Judge and Mayor of the town got an invitation and a key that opened the front door to his restaurant and exclusive club.

Harve and Claire Elliot didn’t know this. They owned a small farm, but once a year, for fourteen years running, they went into town and ‘splurged’ like ‘King Farouk’. They make the mistake of going to Ed Luby’s Steak House uninvited. They make the mistake of being small town hicks and not taking no for an answer. A drunk man and woman turn up. Luby doesn’t let them in either. But he hits the woman so hard he kills her. His goons put the woman’s body in Harve’s car and tell his wife to drive…or else. They get picked up a mile from the scene by the chief of police, Luby’s brother. He tells Harve that he has witnesses, the Mayor and Judge Wampler,  both had seen Harve slug the woman and kill her. Claire is told she’ll never see her kids again. Both are going down. Harve’s lawyer refuses to defend him, tells him to plead guilty. The story goes great guns. The denouement however could have been scripted by J Edgar Hoover.

If you’re a Kurt Vonnegut fan it’s worth a look. If you’re not a Kurt Vonnegut fan it’s worth a look.

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One thought on “Kurt Vonnegut (2010) Look at the Birdie

  1. Loved this collection so much. His letters, though, were really what got me. They informed his fiction better than anything I’ve read prior. Thanks for sharing! If you’re ever interested in some awesome book reviews and literary musings, be sure to follow! Thanks!

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