A Series of Accidents #12: Jailbird

A Series of Accidents is a chronological read-through of the books of Kurt Vonnegut. You can check out earlier articles in the series here.

Jailbird (novel) - Wikipedia

Jailbird is in many ways an uncharacteristic Vonnegut novel. There are no elements of science-fiction or fantasy, and little of metafiction. Instead of using metaphors, Jailbird tackles current political events fairly head-on, in particular the Watergate scandal and the growth of monopoly capitalism. There are none of Vonnegut’s recurring characters, bar the late-in-the-game appearance of Kilgore Trout.

And yet Jailbird also has so many Vonnegutian touches. It’s a comedic novel, one where the high drama of American politics becomes a light sideshow next to more weighty questions of loyalty and justice. Vonnegut’s idiosyncratic version of socialist politics is in evidence here more than anywhere else. There are giant idealistic schemes that fail, implausible turns of events, and plenty of moments of black comedy.

Jailbird is essentially a fictional autobiography, a form that Vonnegut had previously used in Slapstick and Mother Night. Something about capturing an entire life, or most of it, appealed to Vonnegut, although the novels are always light in tone and skip from incident to incident. The narrator of this story is Walter F. Starbuck, named after Moby Dick’s conflicted chief mate, an invented minor figure in the Watergate scandal whose life history captures the decline of American progressivism.

Starbuck begins the novel as a wealthy youth who is nonetheless attracted to the socialist politics of the 1930s. Vonnegut here invokes the doomed history of the American labour movement from the turn of the century, with all its now-forgotten legends, triumphs, and martyrs. Sacco and Vanzetti, a pair of anarchist workers executed after a farcical trial, are touchstones here, both for Starbuck and Vonnegut himself, as he writes in his now-customary autobiographical introduction. The two seem to represent the lost possibility of a decent, perhaps even socialist, American government, strangled in its cradle.

From there Starbuck is caught up in the furor of postwar McCarthyism. He inadvertently gives up a friend of his, reasoning that as so many people were experimenting with communism in the 1930s it shouldn’t be damning in the present day. Starbuck is shunned by his friends for naming names, and becomes a social pariah.

Starbuck is then rescued from oblivion by the Nixon administration, a group who see what he inadvertently did as heroic. He becomes Nixon’s youth advisor, tasked with selling the president to a generation that is increasingly starting to seem dangerous. Even in Nixon’s White House, however, he is a lowly figure and the butt of jokes. When Watergate goes down, Starbuck actually goes to prison, the political elite not bothering to save him. He is a quixotic hero, propelled along by the forces of history and hated by people for things he had no control over.

Through Starbuck’s life, Vonnegut provides a kind of history of the rise of the American reaction, the same phenomenon that is described in depth in the “How We Got Here” series on this very website. Mentioned in passing are reactionary touchstones like Charles Lindbergh and, in a bizarre moment of unintentional synchronicity, an ex-Communist friend of Starbuck;s named Ben Shapiro. He seems to be asking how the same country that elected Franklin Roosevelt with the support of a powerful labour movement could elect Richard Nixon just a few decades later. Men like Walter F. Starbuck are perhaps the answer: cautious, weak-willed people who went along with the age, communists in the 30s and conservatives in the 70s, who adopt politics mainly to get along with other people. This is perhaps a harsh judgment of Starbuck, who is presented as a largely pitiable character – but then, of course he would present himself this way.

Vonnegut certainly didn’t present himself as a hero that would destroy Republicanism by exposing it to ridicule. For one thing, Nixon had been five years out of power by the release of Jailbird. For another, Vonnegut was publicly skeptical about the power of satire. His famous quote about the combined power of all the artists opposed to the Vietnam war amounting to “a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high” also applied to Nixon.

Like Reagan, Bush, and Trump afterwards, Nixon was subject to constant ridicule from liberal authors and artists. This tradition went back to his stint as Vice President in the 1950s, when he was a frequent target of Lenny Bruce. Cartoonists like Herblock and Garry Trudeau shot to fame lampooning Nixon. But such efforts seemed to do little to destabilize the Republicans. Watergate burglars Haldemann and Erlichmann tried to buy Herblock cartoons mocking them, evidently amused. Nixon even invited ridicule at times, such as his famous appearance on Laugh-In.

Starbuck and Vonnegut are, thus, two different types of reaction to the rise of Nixon and Nixonism: lukewarm obsequiousness, or furious but fruitless intellectual resistance. The choice, one might say, between Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel. Others might posit more direct political resistance, or institutional change, as a solution, but Vonnegut seems skeptical of even this.

Jailbird ends in a curious, almost Dickensian, twist of fate. Fresh out of jail, Starbuck encounters a homeless woman. The woman turns out to be Kathleen, an old college flame who had since married the head of the RAMJAC Corporation, a sprawling multinational conglomerate with its fingers in every pie. The invocations of RAMJAC throughout the novel are some of the best and most prescient satire in it, reflecting the age of corporate consolidation which now sees our culture ran by four websites and roughly the same number of media companies, all furiously imitating each other.

In a prince-and-the-pauper twist, Kathleen turns out to be the majority shareholder in RAMJAC, having inherited a controlling interest in the company from her late husband. In exchange for his help, Kathleen gives Starbuck a cushy corporate executive position. This latest twist is what makes the story a comedy rather than a tragedy. Starbuck is blown back and forth by the winds of fate, but at least he ends up in a good place at the end.Looking back on his autobiography, he describes it as “an unbroken chain of proofs that I was never a serious man.”

Vonnegut also likes to try out childishly-simple big political ideas in the novels of this period, and Jailbird gives us one right at the end. In her will, Kathleen leaves the entirety of RAMJAC to the United States government, making it a state-owned company. This would seem to be the wildest dream of a social democrat: putting the massive economies of our corporate giants in public hands so that their vast supply chains can be put to public use. There’s even a book by a Jacobin writer that fantasizes about doing just the same thing to Wal-Mart.

But in Vonnegut’s novel, this turns out to be something of a non-event. RAMJAC is not built to serve the public good, but only to make a profit. As Vonnegut writes, “Most of those businesses, rigged only to make profits, were as indifferent to the needs of people as, say, thunderstorms.” The only thing the government can do with it is to sell it off in pieces to other conglomerates. As with the artificial families of Slapstick, Vonnegut includes such a high-concept solution to show how intractable the problems that beset us are. Like loneliness, inequality is baked into the institutions around us – they cannot simply be set to reverse.

Jailbird was met with a more positive critical response than Vonnegut’s previous two novels. It was even a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, which was a big deal in those days. And yet, despite the lack of science-fictional elements, the novel doesn’t feel like Vonnegut angling for the mainstream. Rather, it’s as if the mainstream had caught up with Kurt Vonnegut: that, with Watergate, reality was absurd enough that Vonnegut didn’t need to add any time-travelling aliens to write a story as absurd and disenchanted as his previous books.

Next time out, we return to Vonnegut’s non-fiction with Palm Sunday.