May 20, 2013
Jane Ciabattari on Kurt Vonnegut
Posted on Dec 25, 2009
“Confido” has echoes of Cheever’s 1953 story “The Enormous Radio” in its dark scenario of a new technology unmasking the politesse of post-World War II America. Henry, a company man, has found his ticket out of the Accousti-gem Corp. by inventing a device that listens to your innermost thoughts and responds. It’s “a small tin box, a wire, and an earphone, like a hearing aid, a creation, in its own modern way, as marvelous as Niagara Falls or the Sphinx.” Ellen, his wife, has dubbed it “Confido”—a combo confidant and household pet. Confido is somebody to talk to. Ellen gives it a try while Henry is heading to work to resign, and after hearing the insinuating voice trashing her friends and neighbors for several hours, decides it’s a bad idea. But Henry is hard to persuade this is not the way to get rich. “It’s bigger than television and psychoanalysis combined,” he says.
“Shout About It From the Housetops” is a set piece probably inspired by the scandalous publication of Grace Metalious’ “Peyton Place.” The story introduces Elsie Strang Morgan, author of a raw book about Hypocrite’s Junction (but really Crocker’s Falls) and her husband, Lance Magnum, from the perspective of a man selling aluminum storm windows. Her book leads to marital discord, resolved by the narrator, who, in a neat wrap-up, has the last word.
In “Hello, Red,” Red Mayo, a young man injured at sea, returns to his hometown to serve as a bridge tender. Vonnegut’s concise description is all we need to know about Red: “He was a heavy young man, twenty-eight, with the flat mean face of a butcher boy.” Red discovers his now deceased former girlfriend had a daughter he can see is his by her vivid red hair. Vonnegut captures Red’s pain as he makes a stumbling attempt at a showdown with Eddie, the man the 8-year-old thinks is her father, while giving equal time to Eddie’s trembling dignity as he claims he’s more her father than Red is. One of the locals who witnesses the scene in a coffee shop delivers the zinger at the end.
“King and Queen of the Universe,” set in 1932, during the Great Depression, follows a well-to-do young engaged couple, age 17, as they leave a dance and walk across a city park, fantasizing about being hobos. Real life pops up in a surreal fashion: “In the middle of the park, what seemed to be a gargoyle on the rim of a fountain detached itself. It revealed itself as a man.” At first frightened, the two are gradually drawn into an intimate and transforming encounter with the man and his mother. Vonnegut’s acute sense of social masks and hypocrisy is undergirded with compassion even for those naive or arrogant enough to be blind to human connection.
The last story in the collection, “The Good Explainer,” is a shaggy dog story about a husband and wife who travel from a small town outside Cincinnati to Chicago to visit a fertility expert. The pacing and intricately structured revelations deliver a whammo ending.
Reading “Look at the Birdie” is a bit like watching “Mad Man” on TV, with the added knowledge that the stories are of their time, not re-creations. The line-by-line mastery evident in these early stories provides a precious glimpse of a writer finding his wings in the years before he soared.
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