Monday, 10 September 2012

Books: Dead-Eye Dick 30 years on - does it stand the test of time?

Now that I’ve hit the tender age of 30, it’s time to hit the ground running with the 30 Books for 30 Years challenge.

Published in 1982, Deadeye Dick by Kurt Vonnegut tells the story of Rudy Waltz, in a tale of guilt and self-reflection. The tone of it is incredibly quirky. It brought to mind the deliberate, no-nonsense narration in Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - a book narrated by an autistic boy who refuses to use metaphors or similes because he considers them “lies”. The tone suggests Rudy’s intense detachment from his emotions, and his inability to empathise and deal with the emotions of others. When things seem to get a little too much for Rudy to cope with, he reels off a recipe to the reader as a distraction. The parts of the story which are emotionally charged are literally transformed into a stage play. In a latter part of the novel, for example, Rudy recalls the details of a funeral, but in order to tell it, he finds it necessary to script it out with stage directions and notes about scenery, even spending quite a while discussing the logistics of getting a hearse into a theatre and onto a stage.

The core of Deadeye Dick’s narrative is hinged around a key moment in which the narrator and protagonist, the aforementioned Rudy Waltz, unwittingly shoots a pregnant woman, killing her and her unborn child. As Rudy observes in the first chapter: “That is my principal objection to life, I think: It's too easy, when alive, to make perfectly horrible mistakes." Because of this horrible mistake, Rudy sees himself from this point as living out the epilogue in the story of his life. He describes himself as being a “neuter”, in the sense that he works nights in a pharmacy, forgoes personal and sexual relationships and tries his utmost to bob along the stream of life unmoved and unnoticed by those around him - the only thing he gives himself credit for in his life is being a good cook. The knowledge that he is known in his town by the nickname “Deadeye Dick” is a perpetual preoccupation in his mind.

Vonnegut’s storytelling usually reveals the key events of a plot from the outset, to let the reader know that plot is secondary and that most important things to consider are characterisation and the ideas explored within. For example, in Deadeye Dick, the facts that Rudy Waltz shot a woman unwittingly, and that the setting for the story, Midland City, is accidently wiped out by a neutron bomb in transit between two military bases, would be kept from the reader until a suitably dramatic point in the narrative by most authors: not Vonnegut. In fact, these key events are more symbolic than dramatic, allowing the reader not to be bogged-down by events and contemplate the layers of meaning that Vonnegut weaves.

As a preamble to the main story, Rudy outlines the biography of his father – a man who had inherited a vast fortune and spent the first half of his adult life as a failed artist (he had no talent as an artist, nor did he make steps to improve). He noted that his father was rejected from the School of Vienna on the same day as Adolf Hitler, and in an act of protest against the professors of the school, his father offered an extravagant price for one of Hitler’s paintings in front of the professors, and the two became good friends. His father later became Midland City’s only card-carrying Nazi, and from the late 1920s until the late 30s, a Nazi flag was hoisted on the roof of his house. Rudy’s mother always seemed to be in another room, both physically and metaphorically, relying on servants to bring up her two children (the older of whom, Felix, became the head of American TV network NBC). As the story progresses, we see how a single life-defining mistake causes his father and mother to lose everything: their wealth; their home; and their lives as they knew them.

Vonnegut is surely the master of the simple line that just seems to speak of some deep undeniable truth. “Beauty seldom comes cheap” is one such line, and as an appreciator of fine art, the sentiment couldn’t ring more true. And perhaps my favourite line, mainly for its nihilistic philosophical insight, was scrawled on the wall of a toilet cubicle:

“To be is to do - Socrates.
To do is to be - Jean-Paul Sartre.
Do be do be do -Frank Sinatra.”

Genius.

I have read three other novels by Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse 5, Breakfast of Champions and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Of these titles, Deadeye Dick is certainly the weakest. Throughout the text there are references and allusions to the events and characters of his previous works (though my favourite literary character, Kilgour Trout, was unfortunately absent). I love this about Vonnegut: his stories are like jigsaw pieces that occasionally connect and reward you for taking an interest in his body of work, but it’s done in such a way that if you hadn’t read any other works, you wouldn’t even notice that another work was being alluded to at all. The only trouble with this inter-textuality, is that it just reminded of how fantastic Breakfast of Champions and Slaughterhouse 5 are when compared to Deadeye Dick. If Deadeye Dick had been the only work produced by Kurt Vonnegut, it would stand on its own as an excellent work of literature, but within the context of Vonnegut’s body of work it pales in comparison.

At its best, Deadeye Dick is a thought-provoking work that raises many fundamental questions about what makes a life meaningful and the nature of guilt. If you have never read any of Vonnegut’s work, I would recommend that you read Slaughterhouse 5.


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