Kurt Vonnegut isn't happy. "I am going to sue the Brown & Williamson Corporation, manufacturer of Pall Mall cigarettes, for a billion bucks," he writes. "For many years now, right on the package, Brown & Williamson have promised to kill me. But I am now 82. Thanks a lot, you dirty rats. The last thing I ever wanted was to be alive when the three most powerful people on the whole planet would be named Bush, Dick and Colon."
This is possibly the best gag in Vonnegut's 25th book, a sequence of loose musings originally conceived for the liberal socialist journal In These Times. The pieces - on war, justice and the perversions of mankind - are interleaved with repros of the little silkscreen prints that Vonnegut has been making since the early 1990s in company with a Kentucky-based printmaker. Mostly, these recapitulate famous quotations from his previous work - "Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God", say, or "Evolution is so creative. That's how we got giraffes." They look as though they should be on postcards. Perhaps they are.
A Man Without a Country, subtitled "A Memoir of Life in George W Bush's America", is a slim book, too: 145 pages, including pictures, asterisks and blank chapter-heads. It'll give you a giggle, but it won't tell you much you don't already know. Kurt Vonnegut, a lifelong Democrat, despises the Bush administration for its blowhard foreign policy, its lust for oil, its high quotient of idiots in public office and its uncharitable social order.
So do I. So do a lot of people. What made this particular take on the whole thing worth publishing, I imagine, was the titular promise of a memoir. Vonnegut is one of America's cherished old buffers, he's written a stack of brilliantly offbeat books and led a fantastically storied life. It would be wonderful to hear about it. So what does he have to say?
Not much. We hear that he was a PoW in Dresden when the place was firebombed: we knew that from Slaughterhouse-5. We hear about how he came to write that book: we knew that from his foreword to Slaughterhouse-5. We hear that he is a German-American - not hard to work out - and that, as the youngest child in his family, he learnt to make jokes "because a joke is the only way he can enter into an adult conversation". Oh, what else. He goes to the post office a bit. He writes a letter or two. He moans about George Bush a bit more and muses on Hamlet. That's it.
This is all rather uncharitable of me, because A Man Without a Country is perfectly readable and actually quite fun. It skips along in a lively, cranky manner: you can imagine a cheerful old guy coming up to you in a diner and delivering most of it off the top of his head. "Get this!" he might cry. "The two most widely abused and addictive and destructive of all substances are both perfectly legal!" Or: "Do you realise that all great literature - Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, A Farewell to Arms, The Scarlet Letter, The Red Badge of Courage, the Iliad and the Odyssey, Crime and Punishment, the Bible, and "The Charge of the Light Brigade" - are [sic] all about what a bummer it is to be a human being?"
Sometimes you suspect that Vonnegut's simply cannibalising himself, propounding the most telling phrases from his previous novels as the philosophy his adherents have always claimed that they are. The presence of some of the best jokes from Timequake, his last novel, add to the impression. But in general, these pronouncements can't be faulted. Furious with mankind and disgusted by what it has done to the planet, Vonnegut doesn't see much of a future for us, so his advice is palliative rather than prescriptive. "Sing in the shower," he advises. "Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something." That's an oldie, but undeniably a goodie. Perhaps more encouragingly, there's this: "If there's anything they hate, it's a wise human. So be one anyway. Save our lives and your own. Be honourable."Reuse content