A Series of Accidents #14: Deadeye Dick

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.

Book Review: Deadeye Dick | The Uncustomary Book Review

One of the benefit of reading an author’s work chronologically is that you start to notice trends, arcs in their work that are just as compelling as any individual narrative. For Kurt Vonnegut, there seems to be a clear divide between his work up to and including Slaughterhouse-Five, and his fiction beginning with Breakfast of Champions. In other words there’s pre-success Vonnegut and post-success Vonnegut. Both Vonneguts share many of the same beliefs and stylistic tics, but the way they express them is very different.

Deadeye Dick is distinctly a post-success Vonnegut novel, which is to say it’s largely of a piece with Jailbird and Slapstick. It’s even a direct sequel to Breakfast of Champions, taking place mostly in Midland City and with Dwayne Hoover and his family in a supporting role. Like the previous two novels, it’s the first-person narrative of a life from childhood to old age, and like Jailbird it’s essentially realistic, with no fantastical elements other than improbable fate. But, no matter how much I read of Vonnegut, books like Deadeye Dick never stop feeling profoundly strange to me.

The protagonist of Deadeye Dick is Rudy Schwartz, a failure. Rudy is best known for accidentally killing a pregnant woman as a teenager, a crime whose shadow he never leaves. He attempts to reinvent himself as a playwright, but fails, and returns to his life working the night shift at a 24-hour pharmacy. He never marries or has children, referring to himself as a “neuter.” Fascinating things occur around him – his brother becomes president of NBC before being disgraced, the beautiful Celia Hildreth becomes a speed-addicted crone, the people of Midland City are all vaporized by a neutron bomb – but throughout it all Rudy remains an unimportant loser. And that’s essentially the entire plot of Deadeye Dick.

If you’re familiar with Vonnegut’s life, or have been reading this series, you might sense some similarities between Rudy’s story and the life of Kurt Vonnegut. I had previously written that Palm Sunday was the closest thing Vonnegut wrote to an autobiography, but Deadeye Dick has to be up there as well. The story is set in Midland City, Vonnegut’s stand-in for his hometown of Indianapolis. Like Kurt, Rudy has German-Americna parents who are the subject of scorn from the World War-era community, and an older brother who becomes a major corporate success. The premise of the story also apparently stems from a young Kurt’s teenage obsession with firearms, which didn’t kill anyone but did lead to a lot of property damage. (This part of his life is not something Vonnegut includes much in his autobiographical musings.)

Of course, these aspects are exaggerated to a comedic effect in fiction. Instead of simply being German, Rudy’s father Otto is an admirer of Hitler (they met when applying for art school) who walks around in a Nazi dress uniform, more out of patriotic naivëte than a belief in fascist ideals. His mother doesn’t die of a sleeping pill overdose but a radioactive fireplace. And rather than a respected scientist at General Electric, older brother Felix is the president of NBC, which would soon be owned once again by General Electric.

And all of Kurt Vonnegut’s failures are magnified in Rudy Schwartz. Most notably, the book seems to be a reflection on Vonnegut’s failures in the theatrical world. The stage was always something that Vonnegut coveted but was never quite able to reach, from his time in Cape Cod regional theatre to the failed run of Goodbye, Wanda June to the unproduced one-act plays that show up in his nonfiction anthologies. No matter how much success Vonnegut had as a prose writer, Deadeye Dick suggests that his theatrical failure continued to eat at him.

(Ironically, the most successful Vonnegut stage play was a musical adaptation of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, which opened off-Broadway around this time in 1979. It used Vonnegut’s name in the title, but he wasn’t directly involved. The musical had only a modest run, but it was the first pairing of composers Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, who would go on to create Little Shop of Horrors and compose music for many of the Disney Renaissance movies. So it goes.)

The play that Rudy actually does manage to get produced is Kathmandu, which is based on John Fortune, a Midland City resident who died in the Himalayas looking for Shangri-La. Exotic places like Haiti and Nepal appear periodically in the narrative as some kind of far-off ideal, but the story stays fairly firmly rooted in the most mundane sections in America. Rudy seems to see Fortune’s story as saying something about America, or perhaps about the human condition, but nobody else seemed to feel the same way. Anyone who has had a failed creative project can probably relate.

This aspiration to drama appears throughout Deadeye Dick. Several sections are written in the form of “playlets”, including a scene where Rudy is witness to the dissolution of Felix’s mother and another when he encounters Celia at the drug store. For Felix, and perhaps for Vonnegut, writing a script seems to be a way to distance himself from an emotionally uncomfortable experience. There are also various recipes inserted throughout the story. I have not made any of them.

By the end of Deadeye Dick, Midland City has had its entire population destroyed by neutron bombs, which destroy organic matter while leaving the buildings in tact. It has become the perfect American city, unburdened by an unruly citizenry. I am also reminded of the experience of walking around in the early COVID-19 pandemic amidst totally deserted city streets – as Vonnegut writes, “You can learn all kinds of habits quickly under martial law.” The government says that the detonation was an accident, but the “ever-growing ball of American paranoia” begins coming up with reasons why it was intentional. All of this might be the material of a pulse-pounding thriller, but in Deadeye Dick it’s all background, never directly depicted.

This perhaps gets to the difficulty critics and readers have had with Deadeye Dick: it’s extremely depressing. There’s no moment of liberation or triumph, not even the flights of fancy from Slaughterhouse-Five. The book feels like it’s spending forever building up to the real action, and then all of a sudden it’s over, and Rudy’s story is almost all in the rear-view mirror. Maybe life is like that. Rudy comments that people see their lives as stories, and that it is difficult to “inhabit an epilogue”, as many people do after middle-age. Vonnegut certainly knew that, and some have suggested that Deadeye Dick may be an admission of guilt to the critical charge that he was past his peak.

I’ve also seen some suggestions that Deadeye Dick is an allegory about nuclear weapons. When Rudy shoots the mother, it is his father Otto who takes the blame, because it was he who let the boy have the key to the gun room. Similarly, Vonnegut blames scientists and the public for allowing governments, who often act very much like children, to have weapons of mass destruction, as expressed in Cat’s Cradle and other works. I’m not sure I fully agree with this reading, mostly because I’m skeptical of such schematic allegories, but it would help to tie together the main plot with the almost offhand appearance of an actual weapon of mass destruction later.

But unlike Rudy, who packed it up after the failure of his first play and went back to the reliable, no-nonsense job his parents wanted for him, Vonnegut kept writing. He was a very successful writer, with a broadly happy personal life, but his later works are still haunted by this spectre of failure, of inhabiting an epilogue. I’m interested to see if this trend continues in the remaining four novels, beginning with Galapagos, or if Vonnegut finds a way to start a new chapter in his works.