BY ERIC MARKOWSKY
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
2005, Seven Stories Press
Calling these pieces essays would be misleading. They’re more like rants, and, like most rants, they sometimes sound repetitive and oversimplified. But these rants are backed by too much gravity and experience to be dismissed. In tone and style, they offer everything fans have come to expect from Vonnegut, spare, humorous prose, overflowing equally with compassion and venom. In content, A Man Without a Country offers an unfiltered look into the mind of a master craftsman with a hell of a lot to rant about.
When the book came out in 2005, Vonnegut already saw so much wrong with the direction the US had taken into the twenty-first century. After everything he had seen and done in the twentieth century, he damn well wasn’t going to keep quiet. From American exceptionalism in general, to the Bush administration in particular, Vonnegut decries the recent actions of a country which he feels has abandoned him and the principles he once went to war to protect.
A Man Without a Country was the last book Vonnegut published before he died in 2007. (Two more collections, one of essays, one of stories, have appeared posthumously.) Every piece conveys a sense of the terminal, of a man near the end looking back for all the hope and insight that his life could possibly offer others. His pessimism over the state of the world is as unabashed as his basic faith that better things are still possible. He finds that humanity’s potential survives in willful acts of rebellion, like reading books:
So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House, the Supreme Court, the Senate, the House of Representatives, or the media. The America I loved still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.
And still on the subject of books: Our daily news sources, newspapers and TV, are now so craven, so unvigilant on behalf of the American people, so uninformative, that only in books do we learn what’s really going on.
Alongside all the invective, Vonnegut’s reminiscences also offer some lighter lessons, recommendations for a simple life in spite of a complex world:
How beautiful it is to get up and go out and do something. We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anyone tell you any different.
Fans of Vonnegut will find some familiar material here, personal anecdotes rehashed from the forewords to some of his best novels (including Slaughterhouse-5). Despite the repetition, A Man Without a Country makes a nice late addition to his cannon. It reads like an afternoon visit with an old friend. For readers unfamiliar with Vonnegut, I wouldn’t recommend starting here, but I’d recommend starting immediately.
Similar reads: Armageddon in Retrospect (Kurt Vonnegut), Hey, Rube: Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine, and the Downward Spiral of Dumbness—Modern History from the Sports Desk (Hunter S. Thompson), Travels with Charley (John Steinbeck)