Review- Vonnegut, “Jailbird”

Kurt Vonnegut, “Jailbird” (1979) – They call this Vonnegut’s “Watergate novel” – how common a subject was Watergate for major novelists of the time? Vonnegut had one, Philip Roth had one, were there a lot of others, enough to denote a subgenre?

Truth be told there’s not a ton of Watergate in this one. The main character, Walter Starbuck, is depicted as the least of all Watergate perpetrators. He’s a functionary Nixon barely recognizes who’s only involvement is that he let bigger government crooks use his underused office. That’s enough to land him in cushy white-collar jail, and not enough to attract the attention of Nixon sympathizers who might give him a book deal or sinecure when he gets out. He’s on his own.

There’s a lot more about moral compromise and the American class system, two of Vonnegut’s usual themes. Starbuck only got his Nixon job by accidentally outing an Alger Hiss-esque Harvard friend as a communist. Told in first person, Starbuck tells us about his loves, foiled and otherwise, and disappointments. Vonnegut’s Veblen-tinged utopian socialism guides the text, including his running jokes about being a Harvard man and what it meant (this having been written after Vonnegut taught there briefly).

It ends with a pretty audacious scheme by one of Starbuck’s exes, which I won’t spoil except to say that it uses corporate America’s sheer size against it, and fails. The story winds up back where it starts, another Vonnegut trope. All in all a minor Vonnegut novel, but enjoyable for all that. ****

Review- Vonnegut, “Jailbird”

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