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Past is Prologue: Vonnegut's Last Book

04.19.2000 | BOOKS

Bagombo Snuff Box
by Kurt Vonnegut
Berkley Pub Group, 2000

It's easy to forget that Kurt Vonnegut came up during the Great Depression. Despite his grandfatherly personae and war record, most people associate him vaguely with 1960s counterculture. His most famous novels appeared around that time, and the thematic glow of his books add up to the literary equivalent of a Dead show: love, humility, kindness, silliness, goofy warm wisdom straight from the heavenly spigot.

But Vonnegut was no hippie, no beat. He was a graying family man who tucked in his shirt during those years, and he never proselytized for LSD. It is in fact mildly and pleasantly shocking to be reminded that this gentle socialist critic of technocracy, hypocrisy, monstrosity, greed, materialism, and ugliness in all its forms actually blossomed from the dry earth of the 1950s, that haunted house of the American Century. It is equally pleasant to learn that Vonnegut was a national success during this time; although not the icon he would later become, he was indeed a minor celebrity within the pre-television Norman Rockwell world of the general interest weekly. And if Bagombo Snuff Box is any indication, it wasn't such a bad world.

This is Vonnegut's first release of fiction in some time. (Timequake, his last book, was memoir.) Most of the short stories date from the middle 1950s when they were published in large circulation magazines such as Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post. They are simple tales, meant to entertain tired families after dinner in an age before time saving devices and loud ubiquitous media turned home-life hectic. They read easily and reek beautifully of the time; it's language, it's preoccupations, it's zeitgeist. It is as if a stork had landed with the most precious of cultural documents from a lost past. At points it is obvious that the younger Vonnegut had less than fully matured as a writer, but it is clearly Vonnegut, and fans will appreciate this window into the early development of the most likable giant of modern letters.

What comes through more than anything else in Bagombo Snuff Box is the sweetness and persistent innocence at the bottom of Vonnegut's soul, the fragile animals that would do mortal battle with a violent and vulgar world in his later work. Reading these stories, I also found myself mourning a hyper-speed culture that no longer produces popular moralists like Kurt Vonnegut, and a culture that, even if it did, would no longer be able to hear him.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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